Bill would expand PTSD benefits

By Kelly Kennedy – MarineCorps Times

Saturday Apr 26, 2008 

House lawmakers have reworked a bill that would make it easier for veterans to get benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder by not requiring them to prove their exposure to a stressor.

Lawmakers expanded the meaning of "combat with the enemy" to include "active service in a theater of combat operations during a period of war; or in combat against a hostile force during a period of hostilities."

That means a cook who witnesses the aftermath of a roadside bomb explosion or a clerk who spends his evenings in bomb shelters in the green zone as rockets hit qualify for medical benefits after being diagnosed with PTSD.

"There are cases of people coming home from Iraq with all the classic symptoms and being denied care," said John Hall, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs disability assistance subcommittee.

As more cases of suicide, divorce and bankruptcy appear, ensuring veterans receive the care they need becomes more important, Hall said April 24.

But Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., offered an amendment to delete that section of the Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Modernization Act of 2008 entirely because, he said, it reduces the significance of the experience of those who "actually did face the enemy."

"I think we can have a more targeted approach than `anyone who was in Iraq’ has the stressor," Lamborn said.

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, said he would be willing to rework the provision but would not support striking the section entirely.

"It’s not a traditional war," Rodriguez said. "The first one who was captured [in Iraq] was a mechanic."

"For every person who is over there, there is no guarantee you’re going to come back to this country safe and sound," added Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill.

In the past, veterans have had to prove a stressor if they have been diagnosed with PTSD, to show it’s service-connected. That often involved finding witnesses to back up the story or asking for letters from commanders.

Lamborn said the bill would remove the ability of the Veterans Affairs Department to ensure veterans are not trying to game the system when they’re not eligible for benefits.

However, representatives of veterans service organizations said at a previous hearing that many more veterans don’t receive benefits they deserve than veterans who get one over on the system.

The subcommittee ultimately voted against Lamborn’s amendment, and he was the only member to support it.

Lamborn, the only Republican on the subcommittee to attend the April 24 meeting to draft the legislation, also contested a section of the bill that requires the VA to award immediate disability benefit pay to seriously wounded service members with obvious injuries, such as paralysis, a lost limb, blindness or a severe traumatic brain injury.

The VA would begin those payments while the service member waited the average 183 days for an initial decision on a benefits claim through the VA’s disability rating process.

Lamborn said the VA already has the ability to award those benefits, and that the temporary ratings could hurt veterans who are eligible for more than 100 percent ratings.

"We’re going to be overcompensating and undercompensating people all over the place," Lamborn said.

"VA says they already can [award temporary benefits]," Hall said. "My problem is they are not doing so. There are too many suffering members of our services who need care now."

Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said she worried the act would be "very costly."

"But this is the cost of going to war," she said. "I think we pay now or we pay later."

Lamborn’s second amendment to strip the language on immediate disability payments also did not make it into the bill, with Lamborn again the only lawmaker to vote for it.

The bill also would have the VA update its disability claims rating schedule; review the idea of whether to offer disability payments based on lost quality of life and earnings; file progress reports with

Congress every six months; and create a ratings schedule advisory panel.

The bill now goes to the full House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for consideration.

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