Veterans with brain injuries to get easier access to VA benefits

Marines receive Purple Hearts Camp Lejeune, N.C. in 2010 for combat injuries. The Veterans Affairs Department has proposed broadening its coverage of illnesses related to brain injuries. (Photo: Pfc. Franklin E. Mercado, U.S. Marine Corps)
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Trish Anderton

Veterans who suffer brain injuries would have an easier time getting disability benefits for illnesses like Parkinson’s Disease and depression under a new federal plan.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is accepting public comments on the proposed rule at regulations.gov. The comment period ends at midnight on February 8.

Under the rule, the following five illnesses would be accepted as secondary disorders relating from a traumatic brain injury (TBI):

- Parkinsonism following  moderate or severe TBI
- Unprovoked seizures following moderate or  severe TBI
- Dementias within 15 years of moderate  or severe TBI
Depression, if manifest within 3 years of moderate  or severe TBI or within 12 months of mild TBI
- Diseases of  hormone deficiency that result from hypothalamo-pituitary changes manifest within 12 months of moderate or severe TBI

This means a veteran who can establish that s/he has had a brain injury in the line of duty would not have to prove that the injury caused the secondary illness – making it easier for “thousands more troops” to get healthcare and compensation for the illnesses, according to the New York Times.

Ex-service members whose injuries fall outside the time or severity guidelines could still get benefits by providing medical evidence that their symptoms are related to their brain injury, the proposal says.

The comments gathered so far at regulations.gov have been enthusiastic. “Parkinson's is difficult to live with, mentally as much as physically, and is an especially harsh payback for a young person's sacrifices,” writes Maureen Steinbruner. “We owe it to those afflicted in this way to understand and treat their disabilities with the best possible basic and clinical research and therapies. Thanks very much.”

Many also urge the agency to further broaden benefits for brain injuries. “I encourage the VA to continue to review research to assess whether it supports extending eligibility for these benefits to veterans who expereince any TBI, not just those classified as moderate or severe,” commented Kathy H. Morton.

And S. Watkins argues the time limits on the rule are unfair. “My husband is 33 years post TBI from the Vietnam War. He has ongoing issues related to his TBI, some of which were not found until the last few years. Does this mean he would not be comped for those secondary illnesses? Putting such short time restrictions can cause many with TBI to be knocked out if the illness is not diagnosed within that short period of time.”

TBI has been called the “the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars” because of the high numbers of roadside bombings in those conflicts. In 2010 the Congressional Research Service reported that there had been 178,876 TBI cases since 2000. Of those, the vast majority – 137,328 – were classified as mild.

Title 38 of the U.S. Code gives the VA Secretary authority to prescribe rules for the VA system, including “the nature and extent of proof and evidence” required to receive benefits.

Do you or a loved one have experience with service-related brain injuries? Do you think the new plan is fair? Share your thoughts with the VA at regulations.gov – and copy your comment below for other GIMBY readers to discuss!