At a news conference Monday, acting Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits Michael Walcoff discussed plans to make the claims process easier for veterans seeking compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder. Walcoff says the move is one attempt to fix what he describes as the VA's image problem.
At a news conference Monday, acting Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits Michael Walcoff discussed plans to make the claims process easier for veterans seeking compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder. Walcoff says the move is one attempt to fix what he describes as the VA's image problem. Alex Brandon/AP
For many U.S. troops now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, coming home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder is hard enough. Once home, it can then take weeks, months, even years to qualify for federal disability benefits and receive treatment.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced a new rule on Monday that aims to change that by making it easier for veterans suffering from PTSD to get the support they need. Veterans will no longer have to prove that a certain attack, bomb explosion or event in a combat zone triggered post-traumatic stress.
It's a change that most agree has been a long time coming.
"The new regulation will potentially benefit all veterans, regardless of their period of service, and it is not limited to veterans with direct combat experience," VA Undersecretary for Benefits Michael Walcoff said Monday during a news conference.
A 'Monumental' Change
Tom Tarantino, of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and himself a veteran of the war in Iraq, says the decision is "absolutely monumental." He says the new regulation reflects the new realities of modern warfare where the lines between combat duty and noncombat duty are often blurred.
"You have a lot of people — you have truck drivers who drive the streets of Baghdad every day, and they get hit with IEDs,” Tarantino says. “You have women who, you know, there's still the myth that women don't serve in combat. Well, if I'm a female soldier and I went on a hundred combat patrols as a medic or as an intelligence analyst, I shouldn't have to fight the VA to prove that I was in combat."
The new rule is designed to prevent what happened to veterans like Richard Sanchez. He served almost a decade in the U.S. Navy with tours in Afghanistan and Kuwait. In 2006, he was diagnosed with PTSD. But when he went to file his claim with the VA, he was denied benefits because he didn't have the right documentation.
All the while his condition was getting worse.
"I got very discouraged, and I locked myself in my room for about six months, and I didn't go out or speak to anybody. I sort of estranged myself from friends and family," Sanchez says.
After years of fighting — both his disorder and the VA — Sanchez's claim was finally approved. Along with the benefits, he says, came a letter of apology from the government.
"And they apologized for it in the letter, and they told me they were working on it and that it was a No. 1 priority for them," he says.
Sanchez says he's pleased with the changes the VA is making to care for vets with PTSD. But despite the praise coming from veterans groups, there are some concerns about the new benefits rule.
Fraud is one. Will making it easier to get PTSD benefits mean it will be easier for people to work the system? VA officials say that's unlikely since veterans looking for benefits still have to be diagnosed by a VA doctor. And if they are showing progress, benefits can be reduced.
Cost is another concern. The VA won't say how much the new rule will cost, but officials do expect new claims from people who up until now have felt deterred by the process. Walcoff says he and others inside the agency are trying to fix what he describes as the VA's image problem.
"I think a lot of veterans perceive us as more adversaries than advocates, so I think that there's a real culture change that is taking place with our employees. But maybe we didn't do everything we could do to be advocates for veterans," Walcoff says. "And I think that what this does is just another step in our attempts to become advocates, to say to a veteran: 'Look, when you apply for benefits, we're going to do everything we can to try to help.'"
Because the new PTSD rule is retroactive, that could mean treatment and financial support for hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been shut out for decades.