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Senator diverts hearing to get answers on PTSD care

By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 21, 2012

WASHINGTON — Sen. Patty Murray interrupted a budget hearing Wednesday to question the Army’s top brass about why hundreds of soldiers had mental health diagnoses overturned because of the expense of paying for their medical retirement.

Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno visited Capitol Hill to discuss the military’s fiscal needs with the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Murray instead steered the discussion in a different direction.

Doctors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state stripped post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses from more than 40 percent of soldiers in the medical retirement process since 2007, said Murray, D-Wash.

“The challenges of mental health care and PTSD are real and no one, no one should be denying any servicemember care purely because of a question of cost,” she said.

McHugh told Murray that the Army was re-evaluating the more than 300 soldiers whose PTSD diagnoses were taken away at Lewis-McChord.

The number of reversals clearly called for an investigation into whether it was done appropriately, he said.

The Army’s inspector general was also investigating all the forensic psychiatric units service-wide that evaluate whether a servicemember should be allowed to medically retire, McHugh said.

“Fiscal considerations should be nonexistent, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure they are,” he said.

At Lewis-McChord, one forensic psychiatrist cautioned his colleagues that it can cost taxpayers $1.5 million to treat a soldier for PTSD over a lifetime should they be allowed to medically retire with the diagnosis. The Seattle Times reported that of 690 patients with a PTSD diagnosis, the forensic psychiatry unit reversed at least 290 diagnoses.

That servicemembers were diagnosed during their miltiary service and received treatment, only to have their diagnoses changed when they entered the medical retirement process is “one of the most troubling aspects,” Murray said at the hearing.

She said that the medical evaluation process must be consistent across the service in order to work properly.

McHugh said part of the Inspector General’s investigation would be to make “very, very clear” to all bases that they cannot diverge from the Army’s standardized system for evaluating medical retirements.

mccloskeym@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @MegMcCloskey

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