Walz, Klobuchar back legislation on mental health aid for misdiagnosed vets

Tim Walz
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, in a 2012 file photo, and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar are backing legislation they say will help thousands of military veterans who were wrongly denied VA benefits.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Two Minnesota lawmakers are pushing legislation they say will help thousands of military veterans who were wrongly denied VA benefits. They say thousands of veterans who may have had post-traumatic stress disorder were wrongly diagnosed.

A national study by Yale University found that more than 31,000 veterans were wrongly discharged from the military after being inaccurately diagnosed with either personality or adjustment disorder. The military doesn't consider those disorders connected to their military service, so these veterans typically are not eligible for all of the benefits that veterans with honorable discharge receive.

At a news conference with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who represents southern Minnesota, said many of them should have received help for post-traumatic stress disorder. They instead found themselves without access to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"When they were experiencing trouble," Walz said, "they were told by the very service that they served that that was a pre-existing condition, they should never have been allowed to serve, and for that we are going to discharge them."

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Walz said either general or less than honorable discharges based on inaccurate diagnoses left these veterans without the benefits they earned, which was "denying them the access to the mental health they deserved, denying them the opportunity for career advancement, denying them the right to become made whole again in the sacrifices they made to us."

Walz's bill would make it easier for veterans to contest that kind of discharge and to access VA services.

The Service Members Mental Health Review Act would allow veterans to have their cases reviewed by a psychologist or psychiatrist, and allow them to present medical information from the VA or Department of Defense and have their records changed if mistakes are found.

New rules are urgently needed, said Ramsey County Veterans Services director Maria Wetherall, because personality or adjustment disorder became a catchall diagnosis for struggling veterans over the last 10 years of war.

"And this practice, I think, is just evolving into a problem largely because the injuries that many veterans are receiving in the combat setting and in other settings, military sexual trauma," she said, "are difficult to diagnose and may take time to diagnose. And many, many of the symptoms associated with those conditions provide challenges in even ... trying to figure out what the problem is."

Without a proper diagnosis, veterans dealing with combat or other trauma often languish without treatment as their symptoms intensify.

An MPR News examination of VA data showed that the number of Minnesota veterans diagnosed with adjustment reaction or personality disorder has risen sharply over the last decade. Since the start of the current conflicts in 2003 through 2012, that was more than 133,000 veterans.

How many of these Minnesota veterans may have been improperly diagnosed is unknown.

Diagnosing mental trauma is no easy task, said University of Minnesota psychiatry professor Michael Miller. The signature injuries of today's wars -- PTSD, brain and other psychological injury -- can be difficult to pinpoint.

"They sort of cope and deal with it but don't necessarily seek proper treatment," Miller said, "and certainly in the military with soldiers coming out of deployments who don't want to report certain symptoms or don't realize that certain symptoms are odd."

Miller said it could take months or years -- and in some cases decades -- before all of today's veterans seek the help they need.