"We're saying it's real," said Tom Pamperin, a deputy director for the Department of Veteran Affairs, about the significance of the change to benefits in the regulation the VA plans to publish today.
Up to 320,000 troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered traumatic brain injury, a RAND Corp. study estimated this year. The vast majority of the cases are mild and came from exposure to an explosion, often from a roadside bomb. Most veterans with mild cases recover, Pamperin said, but some are left with permanent problems.
Compensation could reach $600 a month, the VA said. Currently, veterans with symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light, ringing in the ears and irritability and insomnia collect $117.
After it takes effect in 30 days, the new regulation will benefit between 3,500 and 5,000 veterans a year, the department said. It estimated the changes would cost an extra $120 million through 2017.
More than 1.6 million U.S. troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. About half of those are now veterans, and slightly less than half of those veterans have sought health care from the VA, records show. In the past year, the department has screened 190,000 of these veterans for brain injury. About 20% showed signs of a brain injury, but only about 5% were confirmed as suffering the wound.
The regulation modifies a 1961 rating schedule for mild brain trauma and brings compensation for this ailment into the 21st Century, said Lonnie Bristow, chairman of an Institute of Medicine committee that studied veterans' benefits.
The old regulation failed to recognize that wounds such as brain injuries from blasts — which do not show up on scans — are only understood by what patients say they are suffering, Bristow said.
"VA has been assessing their injuries based on outdated science," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Veterans groups, such as the Disabled American Veterans, applauded the change. However, they said the estimated numbers of traumatic brain injury cases may prove low, because the science around blast damage to the brain is still new.
Veterans who have suffered the most severe brain injuries will not receive much, if any, extra money because existing regulations provided adequate compensation in serious cases, Pamperin said. Consolidating all brain injury standards into one regulation, he said, will make it easier for veterans to get extra benefits to pay for special circumstances such as being housebound by the injury.
|AFTER THE NEW REGULATION|
Projected number of veterans to receive benefits for traumatic brain injuries.
Source: Department of Veterans Affairs