VA's sleep apnea patients get top priority for care

By TOM VANDEN BROOK | USA TODAY | Published: June 4, 2014

WASHINGTON — The veteran with sleep apnea who needs a device to sleep soundly gets top priority when it comes to receiving care at the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs, where fake waiting lists at its hospitals and clinics have kept patients waiting months for care.

Top-priority status puts most veterans with sleep apnea in front of veterans who have lost a foot, perhaps by a buried IED in Afghanistan. The VA considers that soldier 40 percent disabled, and assigns him or her to Priority Group 2 for medical care.

A veteran with sleep apnea, by virtue of needing a continuous positive airway pressure machine to sleep soundly, is automatically considered 50 percent disabled. Veterans assigned a disability rating of 50 percent or greater are assigned to Priority Group 1, according to the VA.

"Since funds are limited, VA set up Priority Groups to make sure that certain groups of Veterans are able to be enrolled before others," the department says on its web site.

There are seven groups of veterans who fall into the waiting line before the apnea patient who needs a CPAP machine. Among them: troops awarded the Purple Heart, Medal of Honor and former prisoners of war (Group 3). The permanently homebound (Group 4).

Veterans' claims for sleep apnea have soared nearly 150 percent since 2009. The condition, characterized by snoring and interrupted breathing, can cause serious health problems if untreated. The malady is associated with obesity and aging, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Compensation to veterans for the disability likely tops $1 billion per year. Nearly nine of 10 veterans receiving compensation are considered 50 percent disabled by the condition. For a single veteran without dependents, the monthly payment is $822.15 for a disability rating of 50 percent.

If the 127,713 veterans with a 50 percent disability rating for sleep apnea in 2013 were paid for that condition alone the cost would have been $1.25 billion.

The soldier or marine who loses a leg below the knee while serving, and can be fitted with a prosthetic limb, is considered 40 percent disabled. He or she receives a $577.54 monthly payment. In addition, all amputees also receive an additional $101 a month.

The successor to Eric Shinseki, the secretary who resigned Friday in light of the waiting-list scandal, could see the ratings for apnea and other disabilities changed. Every rating — for 15 body systems -— is now under review.

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Bobby M. Scharton, a platoon sergeant with 17th Fires Brigade, 7th Infantry Division, watches as Christopher Taylor, a sleep technician with Madigan Army Medical Center, checks sensor connections during a sleep study at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 22, 2013. Sleep technicians connect 26 sensors to patients that measure eye and muscle movements, brain activity, heart rate and breathing.


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