WASHINGTON — More than one in five veterans receiving federal disability payouts suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a figure that has spiked in the last decade.

Veterans Affairs officials told lawmakers Tuesday that the number of disability cases related to PTSD has nearly tripled in that time, from around 345,000 cases in fiscal 2008 to more than 940,000 cases today.

Service-connected PTSD payouts now make up 22 percent of all veterans receiving compensation benefits from the department. That includes all age groups, not just veterans from the recent wars.

But lawmakers still worry that current VA rules may still be excluding thousands more veterans eligible for the disability payouts, which are tied to injuries suffered during military service.

“One-size fits all does not work when it comes to PTSD,” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill. and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance.

“When you’re dealing with a human mind damaged by some really bad circumstances, we have to do everything we can. I know we’re trying, but we hear concerns from constituents on a regular basis.”

The statistics came as part of a committee hearing looking at whether department health officials are handling PTSD claims effectively.

Ronald Burke, assistant deputy undersecretary at the Veterans Benefits Administration, said much of the spike in these claims stems from decisions in 2010 to relax eligibility and evidentiary rules for PTSD diagnoses.

That, coupled with more public attention on the topic and more awareness among veterans, led to more veterans from all eras to file claims. Burke said the department now has 16 training courses focused on handling the cases, in an effort to ensure any affected veteran is identified and helped.

But Gerardo Avila, deputy director at the American Legion’s rehabilitation division, said his group still sees multiple cases where veterans are rejected for a lack of proof or because of rushed evaluations.

“We have seen cases where a veteran presents extreme systems, but is only given a 30 or 40 percent (disability) rating,” he said. “It can be overturned, but it’s not likely to happen. And that could mean years of waiting for an appeal.”

Several lawmakers also expressed concerns about evaluators focusing too much on a symptoms checklist for PTSD, rather than fully assessing the problems before them.

Burke said officials do emphasize that broader view, and “remain committed to providing high-quality and timely decisions” on the issue. That includes possible changes in months and years to come.

Both VA and Defense Department officials have worked in recent years to combat the stigma of seeking help for mental health issues such as PTSD.

 

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.