VA relaxes application process for benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Department of Veterans Affairs is encouraging military veterans previously denied benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder to start reapplying Tuesday as the agency's tedious claims process comes to an end.

Starting Tuesday, the VA will no longer require veterans to provide documented proof of events that might have caused symptoms of the disorder. Instead, a department psychologist or psychiatrist will screen a veteran to verify that the stressful experiences they recall are consistent with their military service and PTSD symptoms, including irritability, flashbacks, deep depression, and other emotional or behavior problems.

"We are acknowledging the inherently stressful nature of the places and circumstances of military service, in which the reality and fear of hostile or terrorist activities is always present," Michael Wolcoff, VA acting undersecretary for benefits, said Monday.

The new policy means that VA will for the first time recognize the nature of military conflicts to include guerrilla warfare, insurgent activity, the absence of a defined front line, and the inability of service members to distinguish between potential allies and threats.

The changes apply to pending claims and any received on or after Tuesday. Veterans previously denied PTSD benefits should also reapply, officials said.

More than 400,000 veterans of all military operations receive benefits for the disorder, of which about 19,000 are women, according to the VA.

Officials could not say how much the policy change will cost, but congressional estimates suggest the VA will pay at least $5.2 billion in PTSD benefits payments over the next decade.

"The system has always paid for this," Wolcoff said, "whether the system pays because the veteran comes to one of our centers and identifies the condition, whether he's being treated at a medical center for other conditions and this comes up, or whether he doesn't get treated at all and society pays in other ways."

In addition to monetary costs, the new policy should reduce the amount of time it takes to process claims, in some cases by years, Wolcoff said.

Officials anticipate that the changes should make life easier for veterans such as Robert Kingsley, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran who applied for PTSD benefits more than two years ago. Shortly after speaking last week with The Washington Post, Kingsley learned that his PTSD claims had been denied. The reason? A spelling mistake on his forms.

"I guess I'm the last victim of the old rule," Kingsley said Monday. But he remains optimistic: VA officials promised to revisit his claims after he spoke Monday with officials at an event announcing the policy changes.

And if those efforts fail, "I will apply again," he said.

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