Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Vindication for a long-running hissy-fit

I have a long history of writing about mental health issues and repatriated soldiers. (More here, here, and here)

Sometimes it has felt like I was shouting down the well. Thank goodness these issues are finally getting some traction. Yesterday I got one more bit of vindication when the Institute of Medicine, which advises the federal government on issues of medical science, released their long awaited report on the treatment returning soldiers are not getting.

The report suggested changes to VA policies, but the panel could not say whether those changes would result in more or fewer PTSD diagnoses, or in greater or lesser expense for taxpayers. "PTSD has become a very serious public health problem for the veterans of current conflicts and past conflicts," said psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen of the University of Iowa, who chaired the panel. Noting the shortcomings of the VA system, Andreasen added that "a comprehensive revision of the disability determination criteria are needed."

She said the current VA system, in which PTSD compensation is limited to those who are unable to hold a job, places many veterans in a Catch-22.

"You can't get a disability payment if you get a job -- that's not a logical way to proceed in terms of providing an incentive to become healthier and a more productive member of society," she said.

The practice is especially wrong, she added, because it is at odds with VA policies for other kinds of injuries. To determine the compensation a wounded veteran should get, the government assigns one a disability score. Veterans who are quadriplegic, for example, can be assigned a disability level of 100 percent even if they hold a job, whereas veterans with PTSD must show they are unable to work to get compensation.

Andreasen said the policies are "problematic, in the sense that they require the person given compensation to be unemployed. This is a disincentive for full or even partial recovery."

I personally favor adopting the suggestions offered by Linda Bilmes of Harvard. She has offered the most troop-centric approach to offering services to those who need and deserve those services. Her notion is so simple it hurts: Give the troops who apply for benefits the benefit of the doubt!

The Institute of Medicine panel said the scale used to evaluate veterans is outdated and largely designed for people who suffer from other mental disorders. Andreasen and other members also said they had heard from veterans who had received wildly different kinds of evaluations -- some lasting 20 minutes while others took hours. The scientists said VA should standardize the evaluations using state-of-the-art diagnostic techniques.

While VA requires its experts to determine what proportion of a veteran's disabilities were caused by particular traumatic experiences, and to what extent overlapping symptoms are related to particular disorders, the IOM said there is no scientific way to classify symptoms in this manner.

Frankly, if you aren’t mad as hell about the way our troops are being treated – if you aren’t pissed off about the fact the VA is still not fully funded – don’t be mouthing platitudes about supporting the troops around me.

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