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New Doubts About Health Care for US War Vets

Aaron Glantz

SAN FRANCISCO - About 300,000 U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression. Another 320,000 veterans likely suffer from traumatic brain injury (TBI), a type of physical brain damage often caused by explosions from roadside bombs.0422 05

These shocking statistics are the results of a study by the RAND Corporation, a leading think tank with close ties to the Pentagon. The group says its study, titled "Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery," represents the first large-scale, nongovernmental assessment of the psychological and cognitive needs of military service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past six years.

Researches found only about half of veterans wounded in this way are receiving treatment from their government. RAND concluded that only 53 percent of veterans with a mental injury had seen a physician or health care provider.

The gap was even higher for traumatic brain injury.

"Fifty-seven percent of those who reported experiencing a probable TBI were never evaluated by a physician for a brain injury," the study said.

Veterans' groups were not surprised by RAND's findings.

"This research confirms what we have been hearing anecdotally for years, that for too many troops, quality health care is inaccessible. As the findings highlight, this crisis is problematic for individual service members and for the country as a whole," said Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), about 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have received health care from the VA system -- about 120,000 for mental injuries. Those statistics appear to be consistent with the RAND Corporation study, confirming more than half the American service personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have slipped through the cracks.

"The VA needs aggressive, pro-veteran leaders; more additional funding for staff, office space, and for screening and treatment equipment," Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense told OneWorld. "The VA needs more streamlined policies so that veterans don't need to fill out a 20-page form in order to get care."

Last July, Sullivan's organization filed a federal class action lawsuit against the VA, accusing the agency of failing to provide Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with the medical care and disability payments they were promised in exchange for their service.


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The case goes to trial today.

Sullivan said his organization decided to file suit when it became clear the agency wouldn't take action on its own. Before helping to found Veterans for Common Sense, Sullivan monitored disability claims for the VA. In 2006, he resigned in protest.

"In 2005, while working at VA, I briefed senior VA political leaders that VA was in a crisis of a surge of disability claims of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans," he said. "I recommended in writing that the VA hire more claims processors to make sure the veterans get their benefits faster instead of facing six-month delays or even longer."

"The VA didn't do anything to help the veterans. What the VA actually did was several things to lock the doors and block veterans from getting mental health assistance from VA," Sullivan added.

In its study, the RAND Corporation wrote that the federal government fails to care for war veterans at its own peril -- noting post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury "can have far reaching and damaging consequences."

"Individuals afflicted with these conditions face higher risks for other psychological problems and for attempting suicide. They have higher rates of unhealthy behaviors -- such as smoking, overeating, and unsafe sex -- and higher rates of physical health problems and mortality. Individuals with these conditions also tend to miss more work or report being less productive," the report said.

"These conditions can impair relationships, disrupt marriages, aggravate the difficulties of parenting, and cause problems in children that may extend the consequences of combat trauma across generations."

"These consequences can have a high economic toll," RAND said. "However, most attempts to measure the costs of these conditions focus only on medical costs to the government. Yet, direct costs of treatment are only a fraction of the total costs related to mental health and cognitive conditions. Far higher are the long-term individual and societal costs stemming from lost productivity, reduced quality of life, homelessness, domestic violence, the strain on families, and suicide. Delivering effective care and restoring veterans to full mental health have the potential to reduce these longer-term costs significantly."

Representatives of the Department of Veterans Affairs refused to comment for this story.

© 2008 One World

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