A Political Debate On Stress Disorder

Army Reserve Sgt. Jared Myers is shown with his mother, Judy Smith, who admitted him to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leavenworth, Kan., where he spent three weeks being diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Army Reserve Sgt. Jared Myers is shown with his mother, Judy Smith, who admitted him to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leavenworth, Kan., where he spent three weeks being diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. (Thad Allender - AP)

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By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The spiraling cost of post-traumatic stress disorder among war veterans has triggered a politically charged debate and ignited fears that the government is trying to limit expensive benefits for emotionally scarred troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the past five years, the number of veterans receiving compensation for the disorder commonly called PTSD has grown nearly seven times as fast as the number receiving benefits for disabilities in general, according to a report this year by the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs. A total of 215,871 veterans received PTSD benefit payments last year at a cost of $4.3 billion, up from $1.7 billion in 1999 -- a jump of more than 150 percent.

Experts say the sharp increase does not begin to factor in the potential impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the increase is largely the result of Vietnam War vets seeking treatment decades after their combat experiences. Facing a budget crunch, experts within and outside the Veterans Affairs Department are raising concerns about fraudulent claims, wondering whether the structure of government benefits discourages healing, and even questioning the utility and objectivity of the diagnosis itself.

"On the one hand, it is good that people are reaching out for help," said Jeff Schrade, communications director for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "At the same time, as more people reach out for help, it squeezes the budget further."

Among the issues being discussed, he said, was whether veterans who show signs of recovery should continue to receive disability compensation: "Whether anyone has the political courage to cut them off -- I don't know that Congress has that will, but we'll see."

Much of the debate is taking place out of public sight, including an internal VA meeting in Philadelphia this month. The department has also been in negotiations with the Institute of Medicine over a review of the "utility and objectiveness" of PTSD diagnostic criteria and the validity of screening techniques, a process that could have profound implications for returning soldiers.

The growing national debate over the Iraq war has changed the nature of the discussion over PTSD, some participants said. "It has become a pro-war-versus-antiwar issue," said one VA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because politics is not supposed to enter the debate. "If we show that PTSD is prevalent and severe, that becomes one more little reason we should stop waging war. If, on the other hand, PTSD rates are low . . . that is convenient for the Bush administration."

As to whether budget issues and politics are playing a role in the agency's review of PTSD diagnosis and treatment, VA spokesman Scott Hogenson said: "The debate is over how to provide the best medical services possible for veterans."

People with PTSD have paralyzing memories of traumatic episodes they experienced or witnessed, a range of emotional problems, and significant impairments in day-to-day functioning. Underlying the political and budget issues, many experts acknowledged, is a broader scientific debate over how best to diagnose trauma-related pathology, what the goal of treatment should be -- even what constitutes trauma.

Harvard psychologist Richard J. McNally argues that the diagnosis equates sexual abuse, car accidents and concentration camps, when they are entirely different experiences: A PTSD diagnosis has become "a way of moral claims-making," he said. "To underscore the reprehensibility of the perpetrator, we say someone has been through a traumatic event."

Chris Frueh, director of the VA clinic in Charleston, S.C., said the department's disability system encourages some veterans to exaggerate symptoms and prolong problems in order to maintain eligibility for benefits.

"We have young men and women coming back from Iraq who are having PTSD and getting the message that this is a disorder they can't be treated for, and they will have to be on disability for the rest of their lives," said Frueh, a professor of public psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina. "My concern about the policies is that they create perverse incentives to stay ill. It is very tough to get better when you are trying to demonstrate how ill you are."


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