The following editorial appeared in Monday’s Washington Post:
New regulations promulgated by the Department of Veterans Affairs and scheduled to take effect this week will make it easier for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 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 this, 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 new 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. A 2007 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that more than 50 percent of those seeking treatment at VA hospitals gave indications of malingering on forensic tests or of misrepresenting the extent of their experience in combat. 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 this will be costly. Even under ideal circumstances, 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. The department must ensure that they have the training and support necessary to make the correct decisions.
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.