After VA failure, nearly 25,000 veterans eligible for new brain exams

UNICOI, TN (WJHL) – Nearly 25,000 veterans across the United States, including hundreds in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina, received improper traumatic brain injury exams, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. As a result of policy confusion, the federal agency says from 2007 through 2015, in some cases, unqualified specialists performed TBI exams.

“We let these Veterans down,” VA Secretary Robert McDonald said last month. “That is why we are taking every step necessary to grant equitable relief to those affected to ensure they receive the full benefits to which they are entitled.”

Since the VA likely misdiagnosed some veterans, the government isn’t fully compensating or treating some of those veterans for their injuries. As a result of a national review, the agency is sending out letters nationwide to the veterans affected. The VA confirms 2,992 of those people are from North Carolina, 818 are from Virginia and 309 are from Tennessee.

VA Deputy Undersecretary David McLenachen said although the agency found 24,800 veterans who are potentially impacted, the number is “over-inclusive to make sure that we’re being fair.”

The VA reports roughly 13,000 of the veterans who will receive letters already collect some kind of benefit for traumatic brain injuries.

Dennis Mull wonders if he’ll get one of the letters. The longtime U.S. Army combat engineer spent more than two decades fighting for his country in both the Vietnam War and Gulf War. Although he has a battle-scarred body, some of his injuries are not superficial. He says more than 25 years ago he suffered an invisible injury after a blast.

“I was an explosive specialist,” Mull said. “I guess I was the slowest, because I barely got clear of it. I was knocked unconscious.”

To this day, he believes he’s still living with a traumatic brain injury.

“At this point it’s probably mild, but at the beginning I think it was moderate to severe,” he said.

Mull says the VA didn’t see it that way. He says he filed a claim in 2008 while living in Virginia and says the agency promptly denied him.

“If you get an invisible injury like PTSD or TBI, everyone says, ‘You’re fine,'” he said. “Just a little over 90 days later, I got a denial. That’s like astronomical for anything in the VA to be over and done in 90 days.”

According to VA policy, only four specialists are qualified to complete TBI exams, but Mull says he never received a physical exam.

“Basically, nobody ever sat down and tried to evaluate whether it was a TBI or not.”

Jason Quick is with Concerned Veterans for America; a national organization that advocates for veterans and for VA reform. He wonders about the unintended consequences of the VA’s failure to diagnose TBIs properly, especially as veterans return home hoping to transition into civilian life.

“To me, it’s more than just a mistake,” Quick said. “Unemployment, things like veteran suicide. You think about how the effects of a misdiagnosed or undiagnosed traumatic brain injury could be affecting a veteran. A lot of veterans come home from service and they want to transition to civilian life. They want to transition into a new career or maybe go to school. A traumatic brain injury really throws all of that stuff out of whack.”

Congressman Phil Roe (R, TN) sees this as another opportunity for the VA to improve quality.

“We’ve just got to get it right for veterans and it’s going to be a work in progress,” he said. “I’ve seen improvements since I’ve been in Congress, but again, it’s never going to be perfect.”

You won’t hear many complaints from Mull. The VA helped him secure a home, an education and a job and he now gives back by volunteering with the Disabled American Veterans charity.

“I’ve used everything from the VA except a cemetery,” the veteran said.

Still, he knows the government occasionally misses the mark.

“That’s all we can ask of anybody,” he said. “You do something wrong, you try to fix it.”

In this case, if that fix doesn’t help him, at the least, he knows it will help his fellow veterans.

Copyright WJHL 2016. All rights reserved.

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