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Obama eases rules for veterans seeking PTSD aid

US promises faster diagnosis, access to benefits

By Roger Runningen
Bloomberg News / July 11, 2010

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WASHINGTON — President Obama said the government this week will make it easier for thousands of US veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to obtain benefits.

“This is a long-overdue step that will help veterans, not just of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but generations of their brave predecessors who proudly served and sacrificed in all our wars,’’ Obama said yesterday in his weekly radio and Internet address.

The disorder, known as PTSD, is brought on by wartime trauma. The hidden and emotional scars may leave victims battling intense fear, helplessness, and feelings of horror years after their combat roles have ended.

“For many years, veterans with PTSD have been stymied in receiving benefits by requirements they produce evidence proving a specific event caused the PTSD,’’ Obama said.

New rules will end corroboration requirements that involve lengthy searches of veterans’ records, a process that may take months or years, according to Veterans Affairs Department officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because details of the new policy haven’t been released.

The changes will speed the process of diagnosing PTSD and granting benefits, the officials said.

Eligibility for benefits also will be extended to soldiers in noncombat roles, such as drivers in military convoys afflicted by fear of roadside bombs, they said.

“I don’t think our troops on the battlefield should have to take notes to keep for a claims application,’’ Obama said. “And I’ve met enough veterans to know that you don’t have to engage in a firefight to endure the trauma of war.’’

Qualified veterans are entitled to disability compensation of as much as $2,700 a month, the officials said.

The new policy is to be announced tomorrow by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Obama said many veterans have felt stigmatized or embarrassed about seeking help for a stress disorder.

“We’ve made it clear up and down the chain of command that folks should seek help if they need it,’’ Obama said. “That is our sacred trust with all who serve — and it doesn’t end when their tour of duty does.’’

Veterans advocates and some lawmakers have said that it could be impossible for some veterans to find records of a firefight or bomb blast.

They also have contended that the old rules ignored other causes of PTSD, such as fearing a traumatic event even if it doesn’t occur. That could discriminate against female troops prohibited from serving on front lines and against other service members who don’t experience combat directly.

A study last year by the RAND Corporation said nearly 20 percent of returning veterans, or 300,000, have symptoms of PTSD or major depression.

The Veterans Affairs Department said it doesn’t expect the number of veterans receiving benefits for PTSD to rise dramatically, because most veterans with legitimate applications for benefits do eventually get claims.

The goal is simply to make the claims process less cumbersome and time-consuming, officials said.

In the weekly Republican address, Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia promoted a Republican Party project called “America Speaking Out,’’ which provides an Internet forum for discussions about policy issues and lets participants vote on their preferences.

“Americans are fed up with how things are going in the country right now,’’ Gingrey said, citing job losses, the $862 billion stimulus program, rising government debt and the “2,000-page, trillion-dollar’’ health care overhaul.

Gingrey said the GOP is offering plans to reduce federal spending and “provide the fiscal discipline economists say is needed to create private-sector jobs and boost our economy.’’

The AmericaSpeakingOut.com website lets people submit their ideas and will help shape the debate for congressional elections in November, he said.

“Americans are proud of this country, they want to see things get better, and they want to be part of that turnaround,’’ Gingrey said.

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