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Answers about VA's new stress-disorder policy

Rules aim to make it easier for veterans to claim benefits for PTSD.

July 13, 2010|By Julia Love, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A new Department of Veterans Affairs policy that takes effect Tuesday aims to make it easier for veterans to receive benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, a medically recognized condition in which symptoms include a lack of emotion, flashbacks and a bad temper. The VA simplified the claims process.

How is the policy changing?

Previously, noncombat veterans had to convince claims adjudicators that they were traumatized by a specific event with incident reports, statements from their peers or other evidence. Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) said the VA would now "presume that veterans are telling the truth."

Under the new rule, veterans can receive disability benefits for PTSD if a VA psychiatrist finds that the traumatic event recalled by a veteran bolsters a PTSD diagnosis. Even veterans who can't trace their trauma to a specific event may be eligible for benefits.

Why is the policy changing?

Military officials say documenting the experiences that provoke PTSD is not always possible. "We made [veterans] jump through hoops to get this well-deserved benefit," said Michael Walcoff, the VA's acting undersecretary for benefits. Hall said the policy change was necessary in light of the new ways wars are waged, without a clearly defined front line.

Who will benefit from the change?

Veterans who were denied PTSD benefits under the old rule are encouraged to reapply. Service members whose claims are pending are entitled to retroactive benefits from the date they applied.

The new rule may prove especially beneficial to women in the armed forces, Hall said. Women are not permitted to serve in combat roles, so they had to satisfy a higher burden of proof to receive benefits for PTSD under the old rule.

How much will this cost?

Military officials said the added expenses would be minimal and the cost of increased claims could be offset by the time saved. Under the old rule, veterans spent months or years trying to get benefits, and the process was also time-consuming for VA employees, Walcoff said.

Veterans diagnosed with PTSD are entitled to monthly payments of up to $2,700. With 20,000 mental health professionals and more than 100 PTSD treatment centers, the VA should be able to handle increased claims, Walcoff added.

How much will claims increase?

Military officials said they could not predict how much claims might rise, but they suspect the old rule deterred many veterans from applying for disability benefits.

Almost 1 in 5 service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of PTSD or depression, but nearly half had not pursued treatment, according to an April 2008 study by the Rand Corp. More than 400,000 veterans currently receive benefits for PTSD.

julia.love@latimes.com

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