Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

Albuquerque Journal 

VA system fails again with Gulf War veterans


August 16, 2017 | View PDF

They have yet to define it and haven’t trained enough people to diagnose it. So it’s little wonder the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs finds itself ill-equipped to deal with Gulf War Illness — a multi-symptom malady linked to military service in the Middle East and first identified in the early 1990s.

The VA estimates that about 44 percent of the 700,000 Gulf War veterans have symptoms associated with Gulf War Illness, or GWI. Yet given the lack of a definition and trained diagnosticians, it’s also not surprising that veterans filing claims for disability compensation for Gulf War Illness are experiencing high rates of denial.

In 2015, the most recent year for which complete data are available, the local VA office turned down 92.5 percent of the 640 Gulf War illness claims it received — the ninth-highest denial rate in the nation. A June report from the Government Accountability Office says most of the 58 regional VA offices showed high denial rates, ranging from 100 percent in Alaska to 47 percent in Boston. Texas’ denial rate was 90 percent.

Gulf War Illness, initially believed to have been caused by exposure to smoke from burn pits or oil well fires, has a frustratingly diverse set of medically unexplained symptoms that can include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders, skin disorders, menstrual issues and memory problems.

Because GWI symptoms range so widely, the VA has yet to develop uniform criteria for determining whether a veteran has it. (It bears noting that the Persian Gulf War, aka Operation Desert Shield, ended in 1991 and the VA has had around a quarter of a century to come up with a plan.)

Lacking a solid definition for GWI, medical examiners are predictably hamstrung when attempting to determine whether a veteran qualifies for disability payments. That in turn leads to the widely varying denial rates for the illness.

Currently, the VA offers its medical examiners a 90-minute online training course on GWI, but it’s entirely voluntary. The report found that only about 10 percent of the VA’s 4,000 medical examiners had completed the course as of February. Sonja Brown, acting associate director of the New Mexico VA Health Care System, didn’t know how many medical examiners here have completed the course.

Meanwhile, thousands of Gulf War veterans whose mysterious ailments may or may not be due to their service are left in limbo regarding treatment and disability benefits.

It’s just the latest way the VA system has failed our servicemen and women.

Back in 2014, allegations of a secret wait list of veterans at the VA medical center in Phoenix triggered a massive audit of more than 216 VA sites, including in New Mexico. Officials at the Raymond G. Murphy Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albuquerque admitted in a conference call that year with Albuquerque Journal reporters and members of the state’s congressional delegation that close to 3,000 patients were parked on a phantom wait list. The revelations fueled a scandal that led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki that May.

To its credit the VA agrees with the latest Government Accountability Office findings and recommendations. But to its discredit, it has done precious little to address them.

— Albuquerque Journal


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