VA boosts payments for brain injuries

New assessment to aid veterans

By Pauline Jelinek
Associated Press / September 24, 2008
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WASHINGTON - The government is more than quadrupling monthly payments to some veterans suffering brain injuries, as the number of such war wounds mounts from the roadside bombings of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The new compensation is based on the assessment that even some troops who have the mildest form of traumatic brain injury could end up with chronic headaches, memory loss, anxiety, or other symptoms that will hurt their chances of getting a job or advancing - thus reducing lifetime earnings by 40 percent.

In a regulation announced yesterday by the Department of Veterans Affairs, officials changed the way they evaluate the injuries. They now judge a person to be 40 percent disabled in such cases rather than 10 percent. The old lower rating was set by a 1961 regulation.

The rating change means that an unmarried veteran, who now receives $117 monthly in compensation, will receive $512. Extra money also will be calculated for troops with spouses and children.

Mild traumatic brain injury is basically a form of concussion that results from severe shaking of the brain after a blast. It can cause blurred vision, insomnia, irritability, and other problems.

The VA change represents the "best judgment of medical experts about what the impact" of such injuries is and how best to evaluate veterans who come to the VA for help, said Tom Pamperin, a deputy director for the department's compensation and pension service.

The change goes into effect in 30 days and those receiving compensation under the old system can have their cases reviewed.

Roughly 1.7 million American troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and a RAND Corporation study estimated early this year that up to 320,000 may have suffered a traumatic brain injury. Officials say that the vast majority of the cases are mild - and that most veterans recover from the mild cases in weeks or months. The new, higher disability rating is for the smaller percentage who suffer permanent damage, Pamperin said.

The extra disability compensation is expected to cost nearly $124 million through 2017. That's based on the assumption that the number of troops who get such payments will rise steadily in the coming years to 5,100 for 2017 from about 800 new cases a year now, Pamperin said.

He said the number of troops going to the VA with brain injuries was only about 200 annually before the start of the Iraq war, where insurgent use of roadside explosives and car-bombs has made brain injuries, amputations, burns, and post-traumatic stress disorder the vast majority of wounds from the campaign. Insurgents are also increasingly using explosives in Afghanistan.

Officials believe compensation levels are already correct for troops with moderate and severe traumatic brain injury that can involve open head wounds.

Though most troops with the severe cases already can be rated at 100 percent disabled, an increase has been approved for additional care they might need. That is, a single vet who needs assisted care can get $3,145 a month compared to the current $2,527 payment.

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