VA backs off review of post-traumatic stress cases

November 11, 2005

BY CHERYL L. REED Staff Reporter

Unable to find extensive fraud, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday it would not launch a massive review of disability cases involving post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although the VA's inspector general urged a review of such cases -- which cost the agency $4.3 billion last year in disability benefits -- the probe had been met with mounting opposition from Congress and veterans organizations.

"They faced the possibility that Congress would have told them in a matter of days not to do this," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.

In a bill pending in Congress, Durbin and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) added an amendment that would have required congressional approval for the VA to initiate its review of 72,000 post-traumatic stress disorder cases.

Obama urges review of denials

"What remains is the need to review claims that might have been denied, particularly in Illinois, so that we can close that imbalance," Obama said.

Less than 3 percent of Illinois' disabled veterans are rated 100 percent disabled for PTSD -- which is one of the highest-paying disabilities. Thirteen percent of disabled veterans in New Mexico are rated 100 percent disabled with PTSD.

New Mexico's disabled veterans receive, overall, $12,004 -- the highest average in the nation. Illinois disabled veterans, on average, receive $6,961 -- the lowest in the nation.

No fraud found

This summer, the VA examined 2,100 PTSD cases in which documents were missing and found the problem was largely the result of their administrators' shortcomings and not the result of fraud.

"In the absence of evidence of fraud, we're not going to put our veterans through the anxiety of a widespread review of their disability claims," VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said Thursday.

Veterans and veterans groups were relieved by the VA's decision.

"Ever since I heard about this, my stomach has been in knots," said Louis Vargas, 58, of Crest Hill. Vargas spent five years fighting the VA before he was finally rated 100 percent disabled last year after a Sun-Times story chronicled his document battle with the VA.

"After all we've gone through, how can they come back and redo the whole situation?" Vargas said. "It's just like a nightmare starting all over again."

Benefit cuts feared

Obama on Thursday referred to one veteran in New Mexico who was rated 100 percent disabled with PTSD was so worried about the review that he committed suicide.

"There were a number of problems in how they were going about it," said Joe Violante, national legislative director for the national Disabled American Veterans. "They weren't reviewing denied cases, which led us to believe they were out to do one thing -- reduce benefits."