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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Update on OEF/OIF Veterans' Mental Health, VA Benefit Issues

Building upon some of the data-rich news clips shared earlier this week, a few more grafs to consider.

Jia-Rui Chong, Los Angeles Times:

About 37% of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have mental health problems, a nearly 50% increase from the last time the prevalence was calculated, according to a new study published today analyzing national Department of Veterans Affairs data.

The study, which examined the records of about 289,000 veterans who sought care at the VA between 2002 and 2008, also found higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. ... The previous study of national VA data, which examined Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking care between 2001 and 2005, found that 25% of those veterans received mental health diagnoses. About 13% were diagnosed with the anxiety disorder PTSD and 5% with depression.

The new study by Seal and her colleagues, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that 22% of the veterans in the study had PTSD and 17% had depression. When the researchers compared veterans of Afghanistan from early in the war to veterans of Iraq four years later, they found the rates of PTSD diagnosis more than tripled.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Jeff Wiehe, Fort Wayne [IN] Journal Gazette:

In January, suicides among soldiers spiked so drastically – six times the rate of January 2008 – that the Army took steps to create a suicide prevention task force and began developing programs to combat post-traumatic stress syndrome for soldiers returning from overseas.

Through June of this year – the latest data available, according to the Department of Defense Web site – there were 88 reported active-duty suicides in 2009, though 34 of those have yet to be confirmed. For the same period in 2008, there were 67 confirmed suicides.

Pauline Jelinek, AP:

Suicides reported among soldiers have tapered off from extreme highs of early this year amid intense Army efforts to stem the deaths, but officials are not yet ready to say they have turned a corner on the problem. ...

At the Pentagon, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said suicides reported among Army soldiers in the last four and a half months totaled 51, compared to 41 in the first two months of the year alone.

"We are not pleased, but we feel better about our efforts in the last four and a half months to at least reduce the number," he said. ... Geren and Chiarelli appeared with National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas R. Insel to announce a team of four research institutions would carry out what they said would be the largest study of suicide and mental health ever undertaken.

The $50 million study is to include some 500,000 soldiers and likely some troops from the Marine Corps and will be done by researchers at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., University of Michigan, Harvard Medical School and Columbia University.

The Army and Marines are doing most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and suicide rates have spiked in both services in recent years.

James Dao, New York Times:

[A] flood of veterans, young and old, [is] seeking disability compensation from the department for psychological and physical injuries connected to their military service. The backlog of unprocessed claims for those disabilities is now over 400,000, up from 253,000 six years ago, the agency said.

The department says its average time for processing those claims, 162 days, is better than it has been in at least eight years. But it does not deny that it has a major problem, with some claims languishing for many months in the department’s overtaxed bureaucracy. ...

Michael Walcoff, deputy under secretary for benefits in the Veterans Benefits Administration, said the department recently finished hiring 4,200 claims processors, but many will not be fully trained for months. The Government Accountability Office reported last year that the Veterans Affairs Department had about 13,000 people processing disability claims. ...

Veterans advocates say the actual backlog is nearing one million, if minor claims, educational programs and appeals of denied claims are factored in. They point to the discovery last year of benefits applications in disposal bins at several department offices as evidence of shoddy handling of claims. And they assert that they routinely see frustratingly long delays on what seem like straightforward claims.

One group, Veterans for Common Sense, has obtained records showing that some veterans are calling suicide hotlines to talk about their delayed disability claims. The group has called on the department to replace Veterans Benefits Administration leaders. ...

Legislation proposed by Representative John Hall, Democrat of New York, would require the government to grant claims by veterans with [PTSD] once they demonstrated simply that they had served in a combat theater, which would include all of Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam.

The projected cost of the legislation, $4.7 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, has become a stumbling block. But Mr. Hall said the cost would be offset by the benefits of reducing the backlog, avoiding appeals of rejected claims and speeding compensation to veterans.

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