Saturday, January 30, 2010

More than 4,300 veterans with PTSD receive benefits upgrade

From The Daily Herald in Everett, Wash.:

More than 4,300 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who were diagnosed while still in service as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but got low military disability ratings, have won an agreement to upgrade them retroactively to 50 percent.

The higher rating will represent an important win for this group of veterans mentally scarred by war.

It will mean, from date of discharge, eligibility for disability retirement and access to Tricare, the military's triple health insurance option, for the veterans, spouses and dependent children.

Any out-of-pocket medical costs since discharge also could be paid retroactively, and these soon-to-be-designated disabled retirees will gain access to discounted shopping and recreational services on base.

Sparking the agreement is a class-action lawsuit brought by the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which contends that the services illegally denied retiree status and medical benefits for years to these veterans who were diagnosed with stress then separated as unfit for service.

Service evaluation boards routinely separated their members with disability ratings as low as 10 percent.

A rating below 30 percent lowers personnel costs. Instead of an immediate annuity and lifetime health care coverage, veterans rated below 30 percent get only a lump sum severance pay.

Judge George Miller agreed to delay a final ruling in the case of Sabo, et al v. United States after defense officials agreed to cut the deal.

Misty Sabo, wife of former Army Sgt. Michael Sabo, an original plaintiff of the Sabo case, said she was excited to learn of the agreement this week. Five of their six children are disabled with bilateral cleft lip and palate, which creates hearing, dental and speech problems and requires multiple surgeries. Family medical bills, said Misty Sabo, are enormous.

Michael Sabo, 31, had served in the Army more than a decade when he was diagnosed with traumatic stress after two tours in Iraq where he routinely went on patrols that exposed him to multiple explosions and enemy fire.

In the middle of his second tour, which again exposed him to explosions, mortar attacks and small arms fire, he returned home on emergency leave to care for his children while his wife underwent surgery. While home, he had nightmares, severe headaches and violent mood swings that the lawsuit contends, “severely impacted him and his family.”

He sought medical help and was diagnosed with traumatic stress and post-concussive syndrome. In February 2008, the Army separated him as unfit with a 10-percent disability rating and a modest lump-sum payment.

Misty Sabo said she was stunned that the Army rating was only 10 percent for a condition that ended his career and changed his life so dramatically.

“He was just thrown to the wind,” she said.

“I didn't care at the time,” said Michael Sabo, in a brief phone interview.

By October 2008, under pressure from Congress, officials did advise the services to rate stress victims at a 50 percent disability. Meanwhile, Congress ordered the defense department to create a special board to review any service-generated disability ratings of 20 percent or less for veterans separated as medically unfit since Sept. 11, 2001.

A class action notice is being mailed to the 4,300 veterans and must be returned either by fax or postmarked before July 24, 2010. Veterans who don't get a notice by mail but believe they might be eligible can get more information at