Bill would expand veterans' health services

WASHINGTON—Citing the large numbers of soldiers returning from Iraq with psychiatric disorders, lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday in the House of Representatives that would expand veterans' health services and study why veterans' mental-disability payments vary widely across the country.

The bill follows a March report in Knight Ridder Newspapers that showed that the assessment—known as a "rating"—that veterans receive for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health ailments is far higher in some regional offices than in others.

The bill would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to study the quality and consistency of claims for post-traumatic stress disorder. Monthly VA payments range from $108 to $2,299, depending on the severity of a physical or mental disability.

Citing the Knight Ridder report, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said in a statement Wednesday that "we need a better understanding of how PTSD claims are adjudicated and why different ratings are issued by different regional offices." Berkley is the ranking Democrat on a House subcommittee on veterans' disability issues and a co-sponsor of the legislation.

The VA has said in the past that it's exploring regional differences in disability payments and ratings, which it attributes to a host of complex factors, and that it's committed to "treating every veteran's claim fairly and equitably."

The wide-ranging legislation, introduced by the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois, also calls for better outreach to inform veterans of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and services, an increase in experts on the disorder in VA health facilities, an extension of VA health care for veterans who served in combat and greater coordination between the Department of Defense and the VA to help veterans make the transition out of the military.

It's unclear how the bill will fare in the Republican-controlled House. It hasn't been introduced in the Senate.