Did the VA Misdiagnose Traumatic Brain Injury in Veterans?

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What would you do if a nurse decided that your doctor was wrong about a traumatic brain injury and that you weren’t entitled to veterans’ benefits? That happened to one Minnesota man and caused his congressman to request a national investigation.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is in charge of taking care of the nation’s veterans when they come home from active service, including providing medical care and pensions for those injured in the line of duty. Now Congressman Tim Walz, a Democrat from Minnesota, is calling on the VA to step up their practices when it come to traumatic brain injury (TBI).

The problem isn’t the policy, which requires a psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, or neurosurgeon to make an initial diagnosis regarding Traumatic Brain Injury in veterans. The problem is that isn’t always happening.

A news report by KARE 11 in Rep. Walz’s home state recently told the story of Butch Hamersma, a Vietnam veteran whose skull was shattered when he drove over a land mine near Chu Lai in November 1968. But when Hamersma applied for TBI benefits, a nurse practitioner found no traumatic brain injury.

Hamersma was not alone. Another lawsuit uncovered 127 TBI examinations performed by two doctors, an Osteopath and a Physician, in violation of VA policy. A spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ralph Heussner, admitted that a “small number” of veterans had been diagnosed by non-specialists. He said:

“We greatly regret the inconvenience to Veterans who returned for a repeat evaluation.”

But the VA won’t say how many people were affected. It has refused Freedom of Information Act requests for the names and qualifications of the people performing TBI exams, claiming the information is personal.

That’s why Rep. Walz has issued his formal request. Calling traumatic brain injury the “signature wound” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he announced:

“I want to know that every veteran that went in to do a C & P exam and specifically being screened for TBI saw a qualified medical professional.”

Walz sent a letter to the Inspector General for the Department of Veterans Affairs, asking for a nationwide investigation. He told KARE 11:

“It’s certainly possible if it happened in Minneapolis it’s possible, and I would argue probable, it happened elsewhere.”

Prompt treatment of a traumatic brain injury is the single best way to fend off secondary injury and complications from swelling and loss of blood flow. If VA doctors have been denying TBI treatments without an expert examination it could be causing irreparable harm to veterans. The VA’s policy is right, TBI should only be diagnosed by a specialist. But that only helps if the policy is enforced. The VA should be doing whatever it can to make sure brain injured veterans get the care they need.

David Christensen is a brain injury expert at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He represents the victims of brain injury resulting from auto accidents. If you or someone you love has suffered from TBI, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.