Get vet­er­ans the help they need

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

New reg­u­la­tions pro­mul­gated by the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs will make it eas­ier for vet­er­ans suf­fer­ing from post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der to claim dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits. Un­der the old sys­tem, vet­er­ans were re­quired to pro­vide ev­i­dence of a spe­cific trau­matic in­ci­dent or stres­sor — an ex­plod­ing bomb, an air raid — that might have trig­gered their dis­or­ders. Now, they have to prove only that they served in a war zone where the con­di­tions were con­sis­tent with the stress they claim.

The new reg­u­la­tions seek to ac­count for the char­ac­ter of wars against ter­ror­ists, in which the en­e­mies are elu­sive and the threats of vi­o­lence un­ceas­ing. The on­go­ing con­flicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are marked by the con­stant fear of im­pro­vised ex­plo­sives and the lack of a clear front line. To ad­dress that, the change would ex­pand ben­e­fits to cover those with­out di­rect com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence who had nonethe­less ex­pe­ri­enced the in­tense fear of im­pend­ing ter­ror­ist or hos­tile ac­tiv­ity char­ac­ter­is­tic of PTSD. Such an ex­pan­sion would be ben­e­fi­cial to ser­vice per­son­nel such as con­voy truck driv­ers and the many ser­vice­women who func­tion in high-stress com­bat en­vi­ron­ments. But the new reg­u­la­tions would ap­ply to vet­er­ans of all con­flicts — not just the most cur­rent. The change will en­able them to get the ben­e­fits with­out go­ing through the te­dious and dif­fi­cult process of doc­u­ment­ing in­di­vid­ual in­ci­dents.

The mea­sures are well-in­ten­tioned and will fa­cil­i­tate ac­cess to ben­e­fits and care for thou­sands of vet­er­ans who need and de­serve them. But given the all-en­com­pass­ing na­ture of the cur­rent wars and the wide range of vet­er­ans who would be cov­ered un­der the new rules, there is po­ten­tial for abuse. Loos­en­ing the re­quire­ments for proof, ex­pand­ing ben­e­fits to in­clude those with­out di­rect com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence and in­clud­ing vet­er­ans of all con­flicts will ex­pand the pos­si­bil­i­ties for fraud. And it will be costly. The mea­sure is ex­pected to cost $42 bil­lion over the next decade. Un­der the pro­posed reg­u­la­tions, VA clin­i­cians will make the fi­nal de­ter­mi­na­tions on who re­ceives ben­e­fits.

But while the pos­si­bil­ity of fraud must be an­tic­i­pated, it can­not be used as an ex­cuse to deny care to those who need it. PTSD is a se­ri­ous prob­lem. Cur­rently, 20 per­cent of vet­er­ans are es­ti­mated to suf­fer from it, and vet­er­ans of cur­rent con­flicts have been tak­ing their own lives at un­prece­dented rates. If care­fully ap­plied, the new reg­u­la­tions may help to stem this fa­tal tide. By help­ing those who suf­fer to gain swifter ac­cess to the care they need, these rules can help Amer­ica serve those who have served the nation.

Amy Sancetta

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