About 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking compensation for service-related injuries — more than double the 21 percent of veterans who filed such claims after the first Gulf War, according to an AP investigation. And new veterans are claiming an average of eight or nine ailments, and in the last year, the average has jumped from 11 to 14. By comparison, Vietnam veterans are receiving compensation for fewer than four injuries on average.
Officials tell the AP that the number of disability claims is increasing because of better treatment for battlefield wounds and more outreach from the Department of Veterans Affairs. And doctors are seeing different types of ailments, including traumatic brain injuries and PTSD:
More of the new veterans are women, accounting for 12 percent of those who have sought care through the VA. Women also served in greater numbers in these wars than in the past. Some female veterans are claiming PTSD due to military sexual trauma — a new challenge from a disability rating standpoint, Hickey said.
The new veterans have different types of injuries than previous veterans did. That’s partly because improvised bombs have been the main weapon and because body armor and improved battlefield care allowed many of them to survive wounds that in past wars proved fatal.
“They’re being kept alive at unprecedented rates,” said Dr. David Cifu, the VA’s medical rehabilitation chief. More than 95 percent of troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have survived.
But the VA’s outmoded system can’t keep up with the backlog of claims. More than 560,000 veterans currently have delayed disability claims that are more than 125 days old. And as the volume continues to grow and cost of health care for veterans increases, Harvard economist Linda Bilmes estimates that the health care and disability costs of the recent wars will cost the nation $600 billion to $900 billion. Despite the mounting claims, the VA is streamlining its process to more effectively take care of veterans because its mission “is to take care of whatever the population is,” Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, told the AP. “We want them to have what their entitlement is.”