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PTSD Payments Vary State to State
Mclatchy -Tribune News Service  |  December 21, 2007
Veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating mental ailments are discovering that their disability payments from the government vary widely depending on where they live, a McClatchy Newspapers analysis has found.

As a result, many recent veterans getting monthly payments for post-traumatic stress disorder from the Department of Veterans Affairs could miss out on tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits over their lifetimes.

The Bush administration has sought to reassure Soldiers that they will be treated fairly, yet veterans in some parts of the country are far more likely to be well compensated than their compatriots elsewhere are, the analysis found.

McClatchy's analysis is based on 3 million disability compensation-claims records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as separate documents that the VA provided. The analysis is the first to examine the issue of state-to-state variations in compensation for those young veterans who have left the military since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.

Disability checks are now worth as much as $2,527 a month for a single veteran with no children. Because they last a lifetime, low payments set now - when veterans are young - have a significant impact.

So far, more than 43,000 recent veterans are on the disability compensation rolls for a range of mental conditions. including post- traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Of those, more than 31,000 have PTSD. Given the number of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's likely a fraction of what the total will be.

The VA's assessments of those injuries, however, are all over the map.

Of the recent veterans processed by the VA office in Albuquerque, N.M., 56 percent have high ratings for PTSD. Of those handled by the office in Fort Harrison, Mont., only 18 percent do, the McClatchy analysis found. In Roanoke, 27 percent have high ratings for PTSD.

"There's no reason in the world that a veteran from Ohio should be shortchanged on benefits simply because he is from Ohio," said U.S. Rep. Zack Space, a Democrat from Ohio, where veterans had among the lowest compensation rates in the nation. "And there's no reason a veteran from New Mexico should be getting more benefits simply because he lives in New Mexico."

A VA benefits official, Michael Walcoff, said the VA was working to minimize unwarranted variations across the country.

"This has been an issue we have been concerned about for a while," he said. "We are trying to learn what we can do to minimize the variances."

So far, 1.5 million Americans have served in the global war on terrorism, and half of them have left active service and made the transition to veteran status, VA documents show.

Those discharged veterans alone already have produced more than 180,000 disability cases, in which veterans are found to have mental or physical ailments linked to their military service. Most already are receiving monthly compensation checks.

Among all the ailments that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have, PTSD ranks fourth, behind ringing in the ear, back strain and hearing loss. PTSD, which tends to be far more debilitating than those other conditions, generates far higher payments.

The McClatchy analysis found that a recent veteran with PTSD on the rolls in Albuquerque is likely to have a higher payment than a new veteran with PTSD on the rolls in the Montana office.

The VA workers who decide PTSD cases determine whether a veteran's ability to function at work is limited a little, a lot or somewhere in between. They examine the frequency of panic attacks and the level of memory loss. The process is subjective, and veterans are placed on a scale that gives them scores - or "ratings" - of zero, 10, 30, 50, 70 or 100.

McClatchy's analysis found that some regional offices are far more likely to give veterans scores of 50 or 70 while others are far more likely to stick with scores of 10 or 30.

Consider the New Mexico and Montana offices, where there are big differences up and down the scale.

In Montana, more than three-quarters of veterans have ratings of zero, 10 or 30. In New Mexico, a majority of the veterans have ratings of 50 or 70.

On top of that, 6 percent of New Mexico veterans had the highest rating possible - 100, worth $2,527 a month - compared with just 1 percent of Montana veterans.

Because payments are loaded toward the highest end of the scale - the difference between the highest rating and the next-highest rating is more than $1,000 a month - the gap in ratings has a significant impact on how much the VA is paying, on average, to veterans in different states.

Factoring in all mental and physical disabilities, the average payment for recent veterans ranges from a high of $734 a month in the Little Rock, Ark., office to a low of $435 a month in Honolulu. In Roanoke, the average was $538.

The VA said it was working to train its employees to handle all cases better, particularly those involving PTSD; all workers are to undergo PTSD training next year.

Of recent vets processed in Roanoke, Va., 27 percent have high ratings for post-traumatic stress disor-der. In Albuquerque, N.M., the number is 56 percent.

For more on PTSD, see here.

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