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Bill Would Boost Oversight of Disability System

A key Senate lawmaker has offered legislation that would force the Pentagon to strengthen oversight of its mental health care and its disability evaluation system for patients.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee, said Monday the Defense Department must improve the way it handles claims about post-traumatic stress disorder, and although she gave credit for the initial work it has accomplished, she said there remains much more to do.

“We owe our veterans a medical evaluation system that treats them fairly, that gives them the proper diagnosis, and that provides access to the mental health care they have earned and deserve,” Murray said.

The Pentagon’s decision to review many denied PTSD claims going back a decade followed revelations that military hospitals across the country were too readily denying claims and, in some cases, were directed to consider the long-term costs associated with a PTSD disability. Investigations by Murray’s staff and others, she said, found that veterans previously diagnosed with PTSD and awarded a disability were having their diagnoses reversed.

“It became clear there were other cases where doctors accused soldiers of exaggerating symptoms without any documentation of appropriate interview techniques,” she said. “They [veterans] encountered inadequate VA medical examinations -- especially in relation to traumatic brain injury.  And they found that many VA rating decisions contained errors, which in some cases impacted the level of benefits the veteran should have received.”

Murray filed her bill against a backdrop of increasing military suicides. DoD’s latest figures show that 154 troops killed themselves in the first 155 days of 2012. On top of that, she said, a veteran commits suicide in America about every 80 minutes.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, addressing the DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference in Washington last week, outlined a four part plan aimed at reversing the trend.

Murray said the latest numbers show that the DoD and VA “are losing the battle against the mental and behavioral wounds of these wars.”

“This bill will help make a difference, but we need to make changes now,” she said.

In addition to improving oversight of the mental health evaluation system, Murray’s bill also would require DoD to create a comprehensive, standardized suicide prevention program; expand some VA mental health services to family members; improve training and education for health care providers; create more peer-to-peer counseling opportunities; and require the VA to establish “accurate and reliable measures” for mental health services.

Murray said opening some VA mental health services to family members would enable them to better cope with stresses when their loved ones return from deployment, she said, and improved training for chaplains and medics would better prepare them for times when stressed troops come to them for help.

Murray also wants to see more peer-to-peer counseling opportunities for vets by requiring VA to offer peer support services at all medical centers and by training vets to provide peer services. 

Today, she said, DoD and VA’s mental health care, suicide prevention, and counseling programs are spread out over the departments and “too often … tangled in a web of bureaucracy.”

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