Vets groups slam review of combat stress cases
By Rick Rogers
A government review of 72,000 post-traumatic stress disorder cases planned for early next year is an excuse to cut benefits for older veterans and toughen qualifications for future ones, veterans groups and other critics contend.
The Department of Veterans Affairs intends to examine cases from 1999 to 2004 in which 100 percent disability benefits were granted primarily for combat stress. The process is expected to last about a year.
In San Diego County, about 2,000 veterans have qualified for the rating of total disability caused mainly by combat stress. They each receive a monthly tax-free payment of $2,299. It is not known how many of those cases will be scrutinized.
The review seemed necessary after an audit of 2,100 such cases nationally found that 25 percent of the VA-approved awards lacked adequate documentation to prove eligibility, said department spokesman Phil Budahn. He said Veterans Affairs has tightened oversight of its program this year by requiring more proof…
The reassessment is “a paper exercise,” Budahn said.
“No one is alleging that veterans are getting benefits they are not entitled to,” he said. “Our assumption is that the documents exist and we just didn’t note them. The last thing we want to do is take away benefits. We are going do all we can to work with veterans on this.”
“If we made mistakes (in awarding benefits prior to 1999), it is not fair to go back on long-settled cases,” Budahn said.
Supporting documents range from unit reports to letters from war buddies backing a veteran’s combat experiences, he said.
“We will be looking for documents that make a solid case that stressors occurred and that the veteran was (actually deployed) or in combat,” Budahn said. “The cases that will be looked at is the supply clerk who never left Fort Polk.”
Representatives for veterans groups in San Diego and Washington, D.C., say the department’s intent is more bottom line and long range.
“This review is really all about wanting to lower the cost of the war when the veterans come back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” said William Rider Jr., president of the La Jolla-based American Combat Veterans of War. “I think certain people in the administration and Congress see veterans as a very large expense every year and they hate it.”
Since 1999, the number of veterans receiving disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder has jumped from 120,265 to 215,871. The corresponding payout has gone from $1.7 billion to $4.3 billion. Roughly 10 percent of the increase is associated with veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Budahn said.
Next year, the department faces a budget shortfall of $2.6 billion. A resolution passed by Congress calls for a $31 billion Veterans Affairs budget. According to a department report issued in May, if 25 percent of veterans are improperly receiving benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, their payments would amount to $860 million in 2004 and $19.8 billion over their average lifetime.
That’s just too much money for an historically underfunded system to ignore, said Dan Goure, a senior defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
“The Department of Defense is being eaten out of house and home by health care costs,” Goure said. “More retirees are going with military medicine, Congress is allowing more National Guard and reservists to enter (the VA system) and the costs are rising. You have to say if you are going to have this kind of ballooning in PTSD benefits, a review is appropriate.”
Some veterans are indeed collecting benefits without merit, said Rider, a former Marine rated in 1999 as 100 percent disabled because of post-traumatic stress disorder. He worries that Veterans Affairs will use those cases as an excuse to cut payments for the deserving while tightening the qualification guidelines for returning combat veterans.
Dave Gorman, executive director of Disabled American Veterans in Washington, is also suspicious of the department’s intentions.
“Why are they doing this review if not to cut benefits?” Gorman said. “Remember these were claims that were allowed at the time. They are also not going back to review claims that they denied and should not have been. . . . I think this is going to make VA decision-makers tighter with their grants for disability payments.”
Veterans will receive a notice if their case is picked for reassessment. Budahn said the department will offer help in searching for additional documents to prove that someone has post-traumatic stress disorder.
And what if no supplemental records are found?
“We are hoping that we are not put in that situation,” Budahn said.
Veterans who lose benefits can contest their cases before the Board of Veterans Appeals, which is part of the VA. It usually takes a year before a decision is rendered.
If that appeal is denied, veterans can seek a final judgment from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.