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VA eases claims process for veterans with PTSD

WASHINGTON -- The Veterans Affairs Department will publish a final regulation July 13 intended to ease the claims process and improve access to health care for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The new rule, to be published in the Federal Register, will relax the evidence requirement if the PTSD stressor claimed by a veteran is linked to "fear of hostile military or terrorist activity and is consistent with the places, types and circumstances of the veteran's service," a VA news release said.

"This nation has a solemn obligation to the men and women who have honorably served this country and suffer from the often-devastating emotional wounds of war," Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said. "This final regulation goes a long way to ensure that veterans receive the benefits and services they need."

Currently, VA decision makers are required to confirm that a noncombat veteran actually experienced a stressor related to hostile military activity, the release said.

Under the new rule, VA no longer will require substantiation of a stressor tied to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity if a VA psychiatrist or psychologist can confirm that the experience recalled by a veteran supports a PTSD diagnosis and the veteran's symptoms are related to the stressor, a VA release said.

"With this new PTSD regulation, we are acknowledging the inherently stressful nature ... of military service in which the reality and fear of hostile or terrorist activity is always present," said Michael Walcoff, the VA's acting undersecretary for benefits.

The regulation will eliminate the need to search for records to verify veterans' accounts, "often a very involved and protracted process," Mr. Walcoff said.

It will enable VA officials "to move more quickly to award more benefits to veterans suffering from PTSD," Mr. Walcoff said.

Mr. Walcoff said he hopes the new regulation will encourage more veterans with PTSD to come forward, particularly those who have been deterred by a seemingly time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process.

More than 400,000 veterans currently are receiving compensation benefits for PTSD, VA officials said. And of the nearly 400,000 veterans treated at VA facilities for PTSD in fiscal 2009, nearly 70,000, or 19 percent, were veterans of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

However, the new regulation has the potential to benefit all veterans, regardless of their period of service, Mr. Walcoff said.

Dr. Robert A. Petzel, the VA's undersecretary for health, said the regulation will be particularly beneficial for veterans who have had their military records damaged or destroyed, female veterans whose records don't specify they have combat experience, and veterans who have experienced combat but have no record of it.

"This is good news for America's veterans," Dr. Petzel said. "In fact, it's a historic day," .

In his weekly address, President Barack Obama called the changes a "long-overdue step."

"I don't think our troops on the battlefield should have to take notes to keep for a claims application," President Obama said. "And I've met enough veterans to know that you don't have to engage in a firefight to endure the trauma of war."

The new regulation not only will help veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but "generations of their brave predecessors who proudly served and sacrificed in all our wars," the president said.

"It's a step that proves America will always be here for our veterans, just as they've been there for us," he said. "We won't let them down. We take care of our own, and as long as I'm commander in chief, that's what we're going to keep doing."