Shinseki behind easing of PTSD rules

By Tom Philpott

Many veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder must be asking themselves today why it took the Department of Veterans Affairs so long to ease the hassle of qualifying for compensation for mental wounds of war.

VA officials aren’t sure themselves. But unsurprisingly they agree with veterans’ advocacy groups that the man personally responsible for a sudden “change of culture” toward stress sufferers is VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

The retired four-star general and former Army chief of staff started toward this goal last year and this month signed a regulation that eases evidence requirements for awarding disability pay to veterans diagnosed with post traumatic stress. No longer will mentally traumatized war veterans have to document the searing event or circumstance, “the stressor,” that caused their condition by searching unit records or gathering witness statements.

Under the new rule, if they’ve been diagnosed with traumatic stress by mental health specialists within the VA health care system, they merely will have to show that they served in a war zone or some other area where they were exposed to the threat of death or serious injury.

“With this new PTSD regulation,” said Michael Walcoff, VA acting under secretary for benefits, “we are acknowledging the inherently stressful nature of places and circumstances of military service in which the reality and fear of hostile or terrorist activity is always present.”

Veterans’ service organizations had pressed for this change for decades. Shinseki, they said, made it happen.

“I think he deserves all the credit, he and the president,” said Rick Weidman, director for government affairs with Vietnam Veterans of America.

As wars have dragged on in Iraq and Afghanistan, where improvised explosive devices are a constant threat and units are redeployed again and again, incidents of stress have risen and the bureaucratic hurdles of getting a claim approved became ever more obvious to administration officials.

But Shinseki, who was wounded in Vietnam, didn’t allow the focus of this regulation change to settle on one generation of veterans, as Congress has done with some other initiatives, including authorizing a stipend for in-home caregivers of severely wounded vets.

“PTSD claims from Vietnam Veterans will be treated no differently than claims from veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan or any other location where the threat of hostile military or terrorist activities was present,” said VA in a written statement to our inquiry.

The relaxed evidence rule will be applied to 84,000 stress claims, including 28,000 first-time claimants. The other 56,000 either are appeals of claims previously denied or seek a higher disability evaluation for veterans who already have a service-connected stress rating.

“This is good news for American veterans — an historic day — especially for veterans who have had their military records damaged or destroyed, for women veterans whose records don’t specify that they’ve had combat experience, and for veterans who have experienced combat but have no record of it,” said Dr. Robert A. Petzel, VA under secretary for health.

More than 400,000 vets already draw VA compensation for service-related stress. Walcoff said VA doesn’t expect VA costs to rise significantly as a result of the rule change.

Weidman does expect additional thousands of veterans to qualify for stress disability ratings, but it won’t occur in a sudden “avalanche” of new claims. More likely, “claims that had been bouncing back and forth for 20 years for Vietnam vets are finally going to start to be approved,” he said.

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