Thursday, January 29, 2009

Iraq, Afghanistan VA Patients Exceed 400,000

Iraq, Afghanistan VA Patients Exceed 400,000
Thursday 29 January 2009
by: Maya Schenwar, t r u t h o u t Report

As the number of veterans seeking health care continues to rise, the VA is straining to meet demands.

Amid talk of a drawdown of troops in Iraq, new statistics from the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) show that US casualties are still climbing quickly. Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield injuries and deaths number 81,361, up from 72,043 last January, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Veterans for Common Sense (VCS). Veteran patients - including those who didn't seek care until their return home - shot up to 400,304 (from 263,909 in December 2007).

For the thousands of soldiers flooding the VA, mental illness tops the list of ailments. Forty-five percent of VA patients have already been diagnosed with mental health conditions, including a startling 105,000 diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These data do not include the incalculable number of mentally ill veterans who have not received a diagnosis or haven't sought treatment at the VA.

Health care for veterans has improved substantially in the past year, mostly due to legislative changes and funding boosts, according to Raymond Kelley, legislative director of AMVETS. The recently passed Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act entitles veterans to up to five years of free health care for military-related medical conditions. Other legislative victories include improvements to VA facilities, increased mental health care research and a boost for the claims processing system, which has been vastly understaffed and overburdened throughout the "war on terror."

However, many barriers to adequate care and compensation remain, particularly for veterans filing for disability benefits. Delays and denials of those claims are routine. Among vets with PTSD, 59 percent have not been approved for benefits, meaning that their claims are pending or rejected - or that, due to any number of deterrents, they have not filed a claim.

According to Paul Sullivan, executive director of VCS, the average wait-time for veterans to receive an answer after filing for disability compensation is more than six months. A recent VCS lawsuit against VA showed that PTSD patients face even longer delays.
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