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"The numbers are pretty staggering," said Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who has done four face transplants on non-military patients and expects to start doing them soon on veterans.
Others have invisible wounds. More than 400,000 of these new veterans have been treated by the VA for a mental health problem, most commonly, PTSD.
Tens of thousands of veterans suffered traumatic brain injury, or TBI — mostly mild concussions from bomb blasts — and doctors don’t know what’s in store for them long-term. Cifu, of the VA, said that roughly 20 percent of active duty troops suffered concussions, but only one-third of them have symptoms lasting beyond a few months.
That’s still a big number, and "it’s very rare that someone has just a single concussion," said David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center. Suffering multiple concussions, or one soon after another, raises the risk of long-term problems. A brain injury also makes the brain more susceptible to PTSD, he said.
On a more mundane level, many new veterans have back, shoulder and knee problems, aggravated by carrying heavy packs and wearing the body armor that helped keep them alive. One recent study found that 19 percent required orthopedic surgery consultations and 4 percent needed surgery after returning from combat.
All of this adds up to more disability claims, which for years have been coming in faster than the government can handle them. The average wait to get a new one processed grows longer each month and is now about eight months — time that a frustrated, injured veteran might spend with no income.
More than 560,000 veterans from all wars currently have claims that are backlogged — older than 125 days.
The VA’s benefits chief, Hickey, gave these reasons:
• Sheer volume. Disability claims from all veterans soared from 888,000 in 2008 to 1.3 million in 2011. Last year’s included more than 230,000 new claims from Vietnam veterans and their survivors because of a change in what conditions can be considered related to Agent Orange exposure. Those complex, 50-year-old cases took more than a third of available staff, she said.
• High number of ailments per claim. When a veteran claims 11 to 14 problems, each one requires "due diligence" — a medical evaluation and proof that it is service-related, Hickey said.
• A new mandate to handle the oldest cases first. Because these tend to be the most complex, they have monopolized staff and pushed up average processing time on new claims, she said.
• Outmoded systems. The VA is streamlining and going to electronic records, but for now, "We have 4.4 million case files sitting around 56 regional offices that we have to work with; that slows us down significantly," Hickey said.
Barry Jesinoski, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, called Hickey’s efforts "commendable," but said: "The VA has a long way to go" to meet veterans’ needs. Even before the surge in Agent Orange cases, VA officials "were already at a place that was unacceptable" on backlogged claims, he said.
He and VA officials agree that the economy is motivating some claims. His group helps veterans file them, and he said that sometimes when veterans come in, "We’ll say, ‘Is your back worse?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, I just lost my job.’"
Jesinoski does believe these veterans have more mental problems, especially from multiple deployments.
"You just can’t keep sending people into war five, six or seven times and expect that they’re going to come home just fine," he said.
For taxpayers, the ordeal is just beginning. With any war, the cost of caring for veterans rises for several decades and peaks 30 to 40 years later, when diseases of aging are more common, said Harvard economist Linda Bilmes. She estimates the health care and disability costs of the recent wars at $600 billion to $900 billion.
"This is a huge number and there’s no money set aside," she said. "Unless we take steps now into some kind of fund that will grow over time, it’s very plausible many people will feel we can’t afford these benefits we overpromised."
How would that play to these veterans, who all volunteered and now expect the government to keep its end of the bargain?
"The deal was, if you get wounded, we’re going to supply this level of support," Bilmes said. Right now, "there’s a lot of sympathy and a lot of people want to help. But memories are short and times change."
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