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Editorial: VA takes a step forward to help wounded warriors

Veterans suffering with traumatic brain injury – the “signature” wound of the post-9/11 wars – have new hope for the compensation they need and deserve.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that it is following the latest science and making it easier for veterans to receive additional disability benefits for illnesses, such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease, linked to traumatic brain injury.

For an agency that has made serious missteps, this is a noteworthy stride in the right direction. The VA had been far too slow to deal with brain injury, even as it became prevalent among soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Only in the past few years has it diagnosed and treated a sizable number of veterans and put significant funding into research.

Under current rules, veterans with service-related TBI who also have one of five conditions – depression, certain kinds of dementia, Parkinson’s, unprovoked seizures or certain diseases of the hypothalamus and pituitary glands – must provide medical evidence that the secondary illness also is related to their military service to be eligible for expanded benefits.

Under the new regulations, which take effect in 30 days, those veterans won’t need further proof to have those ailments included in calculating their disability pay. The VA says the change stems from a new National Academy of Sciences report that found evidence linking moderate or severe TBI with the five ailments.

While the VA doesn’t expect a flood of new claims immediately, the new rules could clear the way for many veterans to seek additional benefits in the years to come. Since 2001, nearly 277,000 cases of traumatic brain injury have been diagnosed in the military. Nearly 73,000 veterans are receiving disability benefits for service-related TBI, according to the VA.

Additional benefits will depend on the extent of disability and the number of dependents. For instance, a married vet with one child would get $5,800 a year for a 30 percent disability and $18,000 a year for 70 percent disability.

Of course, for vets to actually get these benefits, the VA still must do better with its claims backlog. Last week, a top VA official told a congressional committee that there has been a 36 percent reduction since March in the number of claims pending more than 125 days, and that 97 percent of claims pending more than a year have been processed. The VA acknowledged, however, that there is lots of work to meet its goal of eliminating the backlog entirely in 2015.

Relatively few Americans have shouldered the burden of our post-9/11 wars. Tens of thousands came home with serious wounds. The least the rest of us can do is make sure they receive enough benefits to have a decent life.