Waco Veterans Affairs office denies 92% of Gulf War claims

Department of Veterans Affairs benefits officials in Waco have denied a whopping 92 percent of claims related to Gulf War illness, giving Central Texas veterans one of the highest denial rates in the nation, according to data in a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

The report found serious and persistent problems with how the VA handles the complicated Gulf War benefits claims, ranging from poorly trained examiners to inconsistent methods of handling claims in different regions of the country. For example, in the continental United States denial rates ranged from 47 percent in Boston to 95 percent in Roanoke, Va., according to an analysis by the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense.

The VA estimates that 44 percent of the 700,000 service members who served in the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War have developed such symptoms as joint pain, chronic fatigue syndrome and neurological problems after returning home from war. The illnesses are believed to have been caused by exposure to toxic elements like smoke from burning oil wells, depleted uranium and chemical warfare agents such as mustard gas.

Nationally, the VA denied 87 percent of Gulf War illness related claims in 2015, the most recent year data was available, a denial rate that has increased over the past five years. For all other claims, the VA denied disability claims at a rate of 43 percent.

“(Gulf War illness) disability compensation claim laws and regulations need urgent overhaul,” said Paul Sullivan, director of veteran outreach for the Bergmann and Moore law firm and a Gulf War veteran whose own Gulf War claim remains in limbo after 25 years. “The issue of GWI claims is here to stay for several more decades. As Gulf War veterans age, we will file more claims … because our conditions continue manifesting and worsening, thus revealing the true long-term cost of war and toxic exposures on our health.”

Veterans and advocates fought for years to convince the VA to recognize Gulf War illness and compensate veterans suffering its effects. But while the VA has taken some steps to expand eligibility for compensation, experts say the department continues to make it unduly difficult to file and win a benefit claim.

Difficult claims

Advocates concede that Gulf War illness claims are among the most difficult claims that VA examiners encounter. According to Michael Figlioli, deputy director of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Gulf War illness is “intrinsically difficult to diagnose and treat. … (There is) no one distinctive set of symptoms that allow for a single, unmistakable diagnosis.”

The clinical names for the two main categories of Gulf War illness reflect that uncertainty: Medically Unexplained Chronic Multisymptom Illness and Undiagnosed Illness.

Even so, government investigators found that the VA does a poor job educating medical examiners charged with identifying the illness.

GAO investigators found confusion among VA medical examiners and said that as of February, just 10 percent had taken an optional, 90-minute web-based training course. “At the same time, several VA staff noted the complexity of Gulf War illness claims and some medical examiners stated they would benefit from additional training on Gulf War illness and how to conduct these exams,” the GAO found.