VA Rules Help Veterans With PTSD Get Benefits

Veterans who believe they're suffering from PTSD will now find it easier to apply for benefits from the Veterans Administration. The VA is changing rules this week, simplifying the process for claiming benefits.

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For many veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs has long been seen as an adversary, not an advocate. Now, under retired Army General Eric Shinseki, the department has made some changes. Yesterday it made a big one. It issued new rules making it much easier for veterans who say they're suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, to receive benefits and medical care.

John McChesney reports.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: Veteran John Wood is an example of the way the VA sometimes handled PTSD cases in the past. He was an Army reconnaissance scout in Vietnam and saw several fellow soldiers cut down in fire fights. He filed a disability claim, which was denied.

JOHN WOOD: They were saying that I couldn't prove that I had any sort of a combat status in Vietnam and so therefore it couldn't possibly post- traumatic stress disorder because I wasn't in combat, which I was.

MCCHESNEY: Since he'd been trained as a clerk, the VA insisted that Wood couldn't have been in combat. The burden was on him to prove that he had. And he spent years getting letters from fellow soldiers and digging up after-action reports to make his case.

WOOD: It took me from 1972 until 2006 for the VA to admit that I had post- traumatic stress disorder.

MCCHESNEY: Under the new rules, Wood would simply have to show that he'd been deployed to a war zone and that he'd been diagnosed with PTSD.

According to Paul Sullivan, of Veterans for Common Sense, the new regulations bring the department into conformity with recent research - specifically a 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine.

PAUL SULLIVAN: The scientists have concluded that deployment to the war zone itself - with the harsh environment, roadside bombs, daily rocket attacks, the threat of imminent death, and the separation from home - are significant enough risk factors to increase the likelihood of PTSD.

MCCHESNEY: But that likelihood, even under the new rules, is not enough to trigger benefits. The veteran must also be diagnosed with PTSD, and that diagnosis has to be carried out by department psychiatrists. Some veterans' advocates had wanted the diagnosis by private doctors to be admitted.

But Michael Walcoff, undersecretary for veterans' benefits, was unapologetic about this requirement.

MICHAEL WALCOFF: We believe that our VA are really the world experts on this particular condition, especially PTSD as it arises from war.

MCCHESNEY: Veterans' groups say that removing the stigma from PTSD claims and shortening the application process should save money and lives in the long run.

Again, Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense.

SULLIVAN: We hope that with this new regulation, more veterans will want to apply for benefits so that the veterans can receive health care and they don't spiral into broken families, unemployment, drug or alcohol abuse, homelessness and even suicide.

MCCHESNEY: But Dr. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, fears that a determination of disability before treatment could have a demoralizing effect on a veteran.

SALLY SATEL: Can you imagine receiving that disability at full and total level, which says to him: You're right, your situation is hopeless and you are facing a life of total and permanent disability. That is a very momentous sentence to pass on someone.

MCCHESNEY: Dr. Satel says she believes treatment and rehabilitation should come before a final determination of disability compensation. But veterans' advocates point out that many veterans can't receive free treatment unless the VA first determines that they are disabled.

And there are other questions about the new rules, especially the cost. Under- Secretary Walcoff admitted the VA doesn't know how many new claims will result from these changes. But he added that regardless of the numbers, relaxing the rules is the right thing to do.

For NPR News, I'm John McChesney.

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