Where's Fido? VA may prevent funding for PTSD service dogs

Thursday - 10/4/2012, 9:00am EDT

Correction: This story was updated on Oct. 4, 2012, at 8:52 a.m., with the correct political party for Sen. Charles Schumer.

Veterans being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will not be able to turn to a service dog for solace under a new directive by the Department of Veterans Affairs, set to go into effect on Friday.

Federal law says that veterans with physical or mental disabilities can be reimbursed for the cost of a service dog if a medical professional decides that use of such a dog would be beneficial to their treatment.

A new VA directive set to go into effect on Oct. 5 would limit that benefit to veterans with physical disabilities, according to a press release from Sen. Charles E. Schumer's (D-N.Y.) office. The exclusion of veterans with mental disabilities would continue pending the results of an internal VA study, which is due to be completed in 2014.

"Our veterans fought bravely on the field of battle, but unfortunately, for some veterans, the battle does not end once they return home," Schumer said in the release. "Sadly, the horrors of war mean that many veterans come home with PTSD and other mental and emotional ailments. That's why we owe it to these vets to provide them with every recovery option possible, including service dogs, prescribed by a doctor, to help them heal."

According to Schumer, 182,147 veterans with PTSD are being treated at VA medical facilities or Readjustment Counseling Centers across the country.

In 2009, Congress approved the use of "service dogs trained for the aid of persons with mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, to veterans with such illnesses" in fiscal 2010 appropriations legislation.

James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla., is studying ways that service dogs can help veterans with PTSD, TBI and other mental disabilities. VA is waiting for the outcome of that study before it will reimburse qualified veterans.

According to an email from a VA spokesman, the department revised its service and guide dog benefits rules in order to "streamline administrative processes, improve timeliness, assure quality and remove administrative burdens previously required of the veteran."

Under the National Defense Authorization Act of FY2010, VA was charged with assessing the benefits of providing service dogs to veterans with mental health conditions like PTSD, which is the reason for the study.

Currently, 17 pairs of veterans and service dogs are participating in the research study, but the VA has suspended additional pairings "due to concerns about the health of the dogs at the vendor's facility and other contract violations, which led VA to notify the Office of Inspector General," the spokesman wrote.

Schumer said the VA should allow veterans with mental disabilities like PTSD and TBI to continue to receive reimbursements for their service dogs at least until the study is completed in 2014.

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