New rules could take effect as early as Monday to streamline the process for veterans of all eras with post-traumatic stress disorder to become eligible for disability benefits and treatment.
Veterans Affairs Department rules, due to take effect after they are published in the Federal Register, relax the type of evidence that veterans need to try to prove they have service-connected PTSD.
Under the proposed rules, veterans diagnosed with PTSD by a VA health care professional or by someone under contract with VA no longer would have to provide proof that they had been part of a traumatic event in order to be approved for benefits.
Their statements that they had experienced fear, helplessness or horror from an event in the military will be enough to make them eligible for benefits, senior VA officials said Friday.
However, officials would have to determine if a person’s claim seemed appropriate based on their military service. For example, if a veteran claims an event in Iraq caused his PTSD, military records would have to show he had been in Iraq, VA officials said.
Under current rules, VA presumes that combat troops diagnosed with PTSD have the disability because of a combat-related event. But support and administrative troops — who are often still exposed to combat conditions, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan — have faced an additional burden of proving that a specific event that caused their trauma. This involved providing documents or eyewitness statements to substantiate their claims.
The rule change, in the works for more than a year, is in response to complaints from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who had been in combat support and administrative units. Senior VA officials said the change also will help veterans of other eras who have been unable to show a service connection for PTSD.
Will more vets get benefits?
A senior VA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the new procedure “replaces a long, tedious and frustrating process.”
But he said he did not think the overall number of people receiving PTSD-related benefits would increase; he believed most people who were eligible for help ended up making it through the long process.
“They were getting benefits,” he said.
Veterans service organizations do not necessarily agree. Ryan Gallucci, a spokesman for AmVets, said some veterans with PTSD have been unwilling to go through the evidence process.
“There are veterans who don’t want to deal with the hassle, they don’t want to deal with the process,” said Gallucci, who predicted the rule change would result in more veterans receiving PTSD-related disability compensation.
About 400,000 veterans receive PTSD-related benefits today, VA officials said. About 150,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are receiving treatment for PTSD, but only about 80,000 are receiving disability benefits — a disparity that might vanish as a result of what VA officials are calling a “liberalizing” of the claims process.
Gallucci said AmVets generally supports the rules changes, believing they will make it easier for veterans to receive benefits and treatment. But he is disappointed that the VA rule does not accept a PTSD diagnosis from a military or civilian doctor as sufficient proof.
“We still would like to see VA accept outside medical opinions, the same way they accept additional evidence from private doctors for other service-connected conditions,” Gallucci said.
VA officials said outside medical opinions, including a PTSD diagnosis from a military health care professional, would not be enough to receive benefits, but a non-VA diagnosis could be made part of a veteran’s file and considered as part of the disability review.
A key lawmaker who has spent several years pushing for changes in PTSD benefit claims said he was glad to see the change.
“Less than half of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans diagnosed with PTSD are receiving benefits from the VA,” said Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s disability assistance panel. “This rule will have a dramatic impact on Vietnam veterans as well. It can be especially difficult to find evidence of a traumatic incident 40 years after the fact. Many Vietnam veterans who were denied PTSD benefits in the past may now be eligible.”
Hall said PTSD cases are “routinely the most complicated cases for VA to confirm, requiring drawn-out investigations. This new rule cuts down on lengthy investigations and allows VA employees to focus their efforts on new cases and serve more of our veterans."
By Rick Maze - Air Foce Times Staff writer