July 10, 2017
Jake Lowary | Tennessean
Gulf War veterans often wait four times longer for care and their claims at the VA are three times more likely to be denied, according to a report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office.
The GAO report is the most recent indication that the VA itself acknowledges some of its own shortcomings in training, knowledge of medical conditions and the inner workings for which veterans across the country continually blast the VA.
The VA processed some 11,400 claims in 2015 — more than double than 2010 — from Gulf War veterans reporting conditions from Gulf War Illness (GWI), a collection of symptoms and conditions that many veterans from the wars in the early 1990s are suffering
"VA’s ability to accurately process GWI claims is hampered by inadequate training, and its decision letters for denied claims do not communicate key information to veterans," the report reads. "VA medical examiners told GAO that conducting Gulf War general medical exams is challenging because of the range of symptoms that could qualify as GWI."
Symptoms that have been related to GWI include joint pain, gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, and neurological problems, according to GAO, which could include an array of actual diagnoses.
Part of the problem, the GAO report says, is that the VA has training for its examiners, but that training is elective. Just 10 percent of those eligible for the training have taken part, according to the report.
"Federal internal control standards call for adequate training for staff so they can correctly carry out an agency’s procedures," the report said.
Claims processors reported depending on examiners to approve or deny claims. The GAO also found that denial letters often lacked explanations of why the claims were denied.
As a result of the findings in the report, the VA said it would make the 90-minute training for examiners mandatory and would work with a focus group to more clearly define GWI.
In its response, the VA pointed to a $2-million 2014 study that tried to develop a single definition for GWI, but the committee appointed came up with two definitions.
The claims filed by veterans for GWI conditions were approved just 17 percent of the time between 2010 and 2015, the same time period the number of claims spiked.
"This approval rate was consistently lower than that of the non-Gulf War Illness medical issues in each year we reviewed, which officials attributed, in part, to the complexity of processing Gulf War Illness-related medical issues," the report reads.
Many of those veterans had other claims that were approved and resulted in some disability compensation, the report found, but potentially not what they may have been entitled to.
In some areas of the country, the approval rate was less than 9 percent. More than 2,000 undiagnosed illness claims in Muskogee, Okla., for example, were denied in 2015. In Nashville, the denial-to-approval ration was 1,095-194, or nearly 13 percent.