A New Mexico VA Office denies 90% of Gulf War claims

A Veterans Affairs office in New Mexico during the 2015 fiscal year denied more than 90 percent of benefit claims related to Gulf War illnesses, marking the ninth-lowest approval rating among VA sites nationwide, according to a federal report.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Albuquerque office denied 592 of 640 Gulf War illness claims in 2015, which is the latest yearly data available, The Albuquerque Journal reported earlier this week.

The report released in June from the Government Accountability Office found approval rates for Gulf War illness claims are one-third as high as for other disabling conditions. The Gulf War illness claims also took an average of four months longer to process.

Gulf War illness was first identified in soldiers returning home from Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield in the early 1990s. But it has been found to afflict soldiers who have served in other parts of the Middle East since then as well.

The illness includes a wide variety of symptoms and conditions, from fatigue and skin problems to insomnia and indigestion. It is believed the conditions may be the result of exposure to burn pits, oil well fires or depleted uranium weapons during service.

The report concluded that instituting required training for medical examiners, clarifying claim decision letters sent to veterans and developing a single definition for the illness would increase consistency in approval rates and reduce confusion among staff and veterans.

Currently, a 90-minute training course on Gulf War illness is voluntary. Only about 10 percent of the VA’s 4,000 medical examiners had completed it as of February, according to the report.

Sonja Brown, acting associate director of the New Mexico VA Health Care System, did not say how many of the Albuquerque medical examiners have completed the course.

“The Gulf War Examination training is currently on the curriculum for our medical examiners with a due date of 8/10/2017 to complete,” Brown wrote in an email. “While I don’t have a percentage of those completed, I can tell you that the training is being taken.”

The VA plans to make training mandatory, with all medical examiners expected to complete the program by October.

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