VA secretary spurs revised PTSD regulation

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

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 PTSD 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 PTSD.

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 PTSD 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 PTSD have risen and the bureaucratic hurdles of getting a claim approved became ever more obvious to administration officials.

The relaxed evidentiary rule will be applied to 84,000 current PTSD 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 PTSD rating.

Veterans previously denied a PTSD rating can re-file. They certainly should do so if the basis for the original denial was the veteran’s inability to document the stressor behind their trauma.

The revised regulation also will make it easier for veterans to get medical care. Weidman said he knows of war veterans who were receiving care for PTSD in VA hospitals when their claims were denied for failure to prove a fearful service-connected event. They subsequently received medical bills from VA for their care and left the system angrier than ever. No war veteran should have to endure that any more.