New Rule Could Aid Veterans’ Access to Health Care for Some Traumatic Injuries


Published: December 16, 2013

The Department of Veterans Affairs has approved new regulations to make it easier for veterans to receive health care and compensation for certain illnesses, including Parkinsonism, dementia, and depression, which have been linked to traumatic brain injury.

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 The final rules, which will be published on Tuesday in the Federal Register, also add to the list unprovoked seizures and hormone deficiency diseases related to the hypothalamus, pituitary or adrenal glands.

The new policy, which takes effect on Jan. 16, could pave the way for thousands of veterans to file claims. Since 2000, more than 287,000 active-duty service members and veterans have been found to have traumatic brain injuries, according to Defense Department figures. About 62,000 of those injuries have occurred since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Traumatic brain injury can result from exposure to blasts from a land mine or a roadside bomb, but it is more likely to be diagnosed in troops who were not deployed and were injured in vehicle crashes, training accidents or sports activities. More than 51,000 veterans are receiving benefits for service-related traumatic brain injuries.

Under current rules, veterans with one of the five illnesses must provide medical evidence that their condition is the result of their military service to receive veterans’ benefits.

The policy change could expedite the claims process for those who can prove a service-connected traumatic brain injury. Once that is established, the department will accept without further evidence that any of those five diseases was caused by the traumatic brain injury, making the veterans eligible for additional compensation and health care for that particular disease. Veterans of prior wars will also be eligible for the benefits.

The regulations include some significant restrictions on eligibility, however. Veterans with Parkinsonism — a neurological syndrome often resulting in tremors or muscle rigidity — as well as unprovoked seizures, dementias and hormone deficiency diseases will be eligible only if their traumatic brain injury was moderate or severe.

Only about two of every 10 traumatic brain injuries are classified this way. The Department of Veterans Affairs said there was not sufficient research linking mild traumatic brain injuries to the diseases, but noted that researchers were spending more than $100 million over the next five years to study the effects of mild injuries.

The proposed regulations also set time restrictions for some of the illnesses. Dementias must become apparent within 15 years of a moderate or severe traumatic brain injury. Hormone deficiency diseases must manifest themselves within one year of a moderate or severe brain injury. And depression must become evident within three years of a moderate or severe brain injury or within one year of a mild one.