VA Changing Process for Handling PTSD Disability Claims

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Interesting reading from the Associated Press about the Department of Veterans’ Affairs plans to reform the way it handles disability claims from veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Moved by a huge tide of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress, Congress has pressured the Department of Veterans Affairs to settle their disability claims — quickly, humanely, and mostly in the vets’ favor.

The problem: The system is dysfunctional, an open invitation to fraud. And the VA has proposed changes that could make deception even easier.

As someone who has represented countless disabled and injured workers, this article was interesting on two fronts. I know how difficult it can be to prove disability from certain hard-to-prove conditions, and certainly PTSD ranks as one. And I also know that there’s a huge public bias against people who are collecting disability or workers’ comp benefits; there’s a sense that many of these people are faking it.

While there are cases where fraudsters manipulate the system to collect benefits not due them, it’s much more common for someone who is entitled to benefits to not receive them. I suspect that’s also the case with disabled veterans.

The AP article cited three examples of fraudulent PTSD claims:

  • Gulf War veteran Felton Lamar Gray told a VA psychologist he was spattered with «blood and chunks of head» when his «best friend» was shot in the face in Iraq. But only after the VA rated Gray 100 percent disabled did anyone check into his stories — and discover the comrade he spoke of is very much alive and said he barely knew Gray.
  • Thomas James Barnhart is a Coast Guard veteran who used forged documents to convince VA doctors he was an elite, much-decorated Navy SEAL. Barnhart’s tales of daring rescues and of cradling a dying helicopter pilot in his arms won a congressman to his cause and helped him get a 30 percent PTSD disability rating from the VA, before he was outed by a watchdog group.
  • Vietnam-era veteran Keith Roberts said he was traumatized when he was prevented from rescuing a friend being crushed under a Navy airplane, and was eventually granted 100 percent disability. But when the case was reopened, investigators could find no evidence that Roberts was even present when the accident occurred.

But don’t let those examples cloud the reality. PTSD is a very real and very debilitating condition affecting hundreds of thousands of veterans. The VA should be applauded for its efforts to more quickly and favorably settle these disability claims.

PTSD is an undeniably real sickness whose symptoms — flashbacks, vivid nightmares, intrusive thoughts, exaggerated startle response, emotional numbness — can be debilitating. As of Fiscal Year 2009, nearly 390,000 veterans were receiving benefits for PTSD, making it the fourth-most prevalent service-connected disability, according to the VA.

Authorities have tried to brace the public for a tidal wave of psychically damaged veterans from the current wars. Of the roughly 1.6 million troops who have served in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 134,000 had been seen at VA health care facilities for «potential PTSD» as of late last year, according to a government report. Researchers suggest the numbers of actual sufferers are much higher.

Veterans groups have sued the VA over an enormous backlog, complaining that claims take months and even years to be approved, and that some veterans had committed suicide as a result.

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