By Kimberly Hefling
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Troops serving in dangerous roles behind the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan have long said that it was hard to prove their combat experience when applying for disability for post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the Department of Veterans Affairs has proposed reducing the paperwork required for veterans to show that their experience caused combat-related stress. Even just the fear of hostile action would be sufficient, as long as a VA psychologist or psychiatrist agreed.
VA says the change would streamline claims and recognize the "inherently stressful nature" of war service. The agency is accepting comments until Oct. 23.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told lawmakers Wednesday that he is committed to improving trust in the claims process between veterans and his agency, and to helping veterans receive benefits.
"We will change the culture," he said. "I will assure you of that."
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called it a significant shift in policy. "Before, and for a long time, I've been fighting many times over for VA not to discourage people from saying they have PTSD," said Murray, who serves on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "We've have many cases where veterans were told it's all in your head." Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect anyone who is traumatized by an experience. More than 134,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have sought help at a VA facility for possible PTSD, VA says. The symptoms include flashbacks and anxiety, and for some, it is so debilitating that it makes it difficult to work after they leave the military.
While praising the VA effort, veterans service organizations have questioned the requirement for a VA psychologist or psychiatrist to agree that the experience caused the disorder. Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.), who chairs a subcommittee with oversight of the disability claims system, said he is concerned that the proposed rule is not comprehensive enough.
The debate is a reflection of the changing battlefield.
A World War II-era law established that veterans who "engaged in combat with the enemy" receive special treatment when they seek disability compensation, so it is less burdensome to prove that an injury was from war service.
Troops from an infantry or special forces unit are awarded a badge that makes it easier to prove they engaged in combat.
Truck drivers, cooks and others in support roles are not eligible for the badge but can use other types of documentation or medals, such as a Purple Heart, to prove they were in combat.
But veterans and service organizations that work with them have said doing so is often incredibly difficult, in part because many units do not keep paperwork. About half of all post-traumatic stress disability claims filed by veterans are denied, with the majority of denials coming because the veteran lacks sufficient documentation, VA has said.
VA said it does not have an estimate of the number of veterans who would fall under the policy change, nor does it have a cost estimate.