VA expands benefits for brain injury treatment

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Some veterans who suffered traumatic brain injuries will have easier access to care through new regulations announced Friday by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Parkinson's disease, unprovoked seizures, some dementias, depression and hormone deficiency diseases related to several glands will be eligible for the expanded benefits. The regulations were set to be published in the Federal Register today.

The new rule could speed up and simplify cases. The proposal, which requires a 60-day public comment period, could open the door for tens of thousands of veterans to file treatment claims with the Veterans Benefits Administration.

More than 250,000 service members — including some on active duty — have received diagnoses of traumatic brain injury (TBI) since 2000, according to the Defense Department. The causes of TBI include blast exposure, vehicle crashes, training accidents and sports injuries.  Currently, veterans need to provide medical evidence that their illness was caused by military service. About 51,000 military personnel receive benefits for service-connected traumatic brain injuries. Veterans of prior conflicts also will be eligible under the new regulations.

The regulations include several major restrictions. Veterans who suffer from Parkinson's, unprovoked seizures, dementias and hormone deficiency diseases will qualify only if their traumatic brain injury was moderate or severe. Only about 2 in 10 are diagnosed at that level.

The new proposal also includes time limits for dementia, hormone deficiency and depression claims.

In a news release, the VA cited a 2008 Institute of Medicine study that concluded that evidence linking mild TBI to the diseases was “limited or suggestive.”

The last time the department significantly expanded benefits — in 2010, for several diseases linked to the Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange — it prompted a an overflow of new claims. The department has cleared most of those, but still has nearly 900,000 pending claims. VA officials said they do not plan to add extra personnel or have an extreme influx of claims due to the new rule.