Have Questions About the Disability Claims Process for Social Security or Veterans Benefits? Check Out Our FAQs
Dealing with the disability application or appeals process always comes with plenty of questions. Whether your questions are about Social Security or VA Disability, here are some of the questions we hear the most at our Omaha law firm.
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How does the new Social Security ruling affect my fibromyalgia case?
Many people who suffer from fibromyalgia (FM) are denied Social Security benefits when they apply to the Social Security Administration (SSA) for disability. Administrative law judges (ALJs) and claims examiners are often reluctant to approve applications for FM for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that there is no listing for this condition in the Social Security “Blue Book” Listing of Impairments. Another reason is that examiners place less significance on an FM claim unless the applicant has some other type of condition along with it. If the secondary condition had medical evidence—for example, blood tests or x-rays—the claim is given more weight. Because the symptoms of FM can present like symptoms of other illnesses, the causes aren’t clear, and diagnosing the symptoms can be subjective, disability examiners are not always sure how to classify cases of FM. However, as researchers and medical personnel have learned more about FM, Social Security now has new standards for how to assess this condition.
To address these issues, the SSA published a new ruling that helps examiners and ALJs evaluate FM, even if the symptoms can’t be confirmed or validated by definitive testing, as with conditions such as degenerative disc disease or rheumatoid arthritis. The ruling should help those who are initially denied benefits to win during the appeals process.
Medically Determinable Impairments and the New 2012 SSA Fibromyalgia Ruling
To be eligible for Social Security benefits, you must have medical evidence of that disease that’s established through blood tests, scans, x-rays, and other definitive tests. Your impairment cannot be determined through personal accounts and details of your symptoms. Thus, you’re required to have a “medically determinable impairment” (MDI), and there must be medical signs of the impairment that the SSA can see cause your symptoms. But because these symptoms are often difficult to prove—widespread pain throughout the body, tenderness in the joints, muscles, and soft tissues, fatigue, fibro fog, and dizziness—it’s not easy to get a Social Security claim for FM approved.
In 2012 however, Social Security issued a new ruling defining when FM is considered an MDI. The ruling stated that examiners and ALJs were to use criteria established by the American College of Rheumatology to decide if an applicant’s FM was an MDI. This determination is made in the following ways:
The patient needs evidence that he suffers from widespread, chronic pain that has lasted for at least three months. The pain must be in his chest, neck, or back. Through the use of lab tests or x-rays, a doctor must have eliminated other diseases such as multiple sclerosis and lupus as the cause of the symptoms.
The patient must show signs of one of the following: Eleven of eighteen “tender points,” in specified tender point areas on the body. These tender points must be felt above and below the waist and on both sides of the body. Six or more FM symptoms must occur repeatedly, particularly memory problems, depression, anxiety, fatigue, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A patient can experience other symptoms, including muscle weakness, seizures, and dizziness.
The examiner will review your medical records to ensure that they include enough evidence based on these criteria. After reading your doctor’s notes, the examiner may ask for more information: data on how long you’ve experienced your impairment; the doctor’s opinion of how well you can function on a daily basis or at a job; the type of treatments you were given and if you suffered any side effects; and the period of time he expects that your activity will be reduced. It’s important to note that these criteria only establish that your FM is an MDI; it does not establish whether you’re disabled. Even if you meet the listed criteria, you must prove to the SSA that you can’t work at your current job or any other U.S. job.
However, even with the new ruling, it is still possible that FM sufferers will continue to see their benefits denied initially. Even if they’ve been under a doctor’s care for an extended period of time for this condition, applicants may still need to appeal their claims.
We Can Help
If you suffer from symptoms of FM that make it impossible to sustain gainful employment, and you’ve been denied benefits in the past, the SSA’s new ruling you help you appeal the decision. If you need help applying for Social Security Disability benefits, or you’ve applied and were denied, call Cuddigan Law at 402-933-5405. We’ll schedule an appointment to discuss your eligibility for compensation.
How will the VA rating changes for sleep apnea affect my disability?
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that interrupts a person’s breathing. This interruption can last from 10 to 30 seconds and may occur up to 400 times a night for those who suffer from a severe case of this condition. Because sleep apnea is both a chronic and progressive condition, it usually worsens over time.
Those who suffer from this chronic condition are at risk of a variety of problems, including four times greater risk of stroke, three times greater risk of heart disease, and an increased chance of being involved in a traffic accident. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy driving related to symptoms of sleep apnea is responsible for 100,000 car accidents and over 1,500 deaths a year.
Veterans are particularly susceptible to sleep apnea. Over 420,000 veterans who served in the military following 9/11 and receive disability from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have sleep apnea that is service-connected. And although there are many causes of this condition, including age, obesity, and a deviated septum, many doctors believe this condition is also caused by long-term exposure to chemicals and dust. Military personnel often work and fight in environments that contribute to sleep apnea.
Because sleep apnea has been associated with fatigue, heart problems, hypertension, and memory problems, it’s possible for this condition to interfere with your ability to work or sustain gainful employment. If so, you may be eligible for VA Disability benefits. However, the VA rating for sleep apnea is changing, and you may have questions about how those changes affect your current disability or your eligibility if you want to apply.
Questions About the New VA Rating Changes for Sleep Apnea
Because so many veterans are on disability for sleep apnea, the changes to the rating system could have a broad and significant impact. If you’re receiving VA compensation for sleep apnea, here are answers to some questions you may have:
- What are the new changes being made to the VA sleep apnea rating system? There are two changes being made to the rating. Change 1: A veteran must show that the CPAP he’s using is a medical necessity. Thus, a letter from your doctor will be needed to explain that the prescribed breathing device is needed for medical treatment of your sleep apnea. Change 2: Veterans can use breathing devices other than a CPAP and still be eligible for a rating of 50 percent. This is helpful for veterans because doctors can prescribe different devices to treat sleep apnea, including APAP and BiPAP machines and dental aids. Consequently, if your doctor prescribes a CPAP or any other breathing device, and he can provide evidence that in order to treat your sleep apnea condition, your device is medically necessary, it’s likely you’ll be approved for a 50 percent rating.
- Why did the VA make these changes? A primary factor is the cost of sleep apnea disability for veterans. Disability compensation claims for veterans suffering from sleep apnea increased by 150 percent from 2009 to 2014, and according to reports, annual compensation for this condition continues to rise. Additionally, approximately 9 of 10 veterans who receive disability for sleep apnea are given a 50 percent disabled rating. This can mean a monthly payment of over $800.00. Due to the increased cost of compensating for this condition, the rules were reviewed.
- Will the changes affect my current disability benefits or a pending claim? The M21 – 1MR VA Handbook does not specifically state how the changes will impact current and pending claims. It’s recommended that you look at your C-File to see if there is a doctor’s statement providing solid evidence that your breathing device is a medical requirement in treating your sleep apnea. If there is no such statement, it’s a good idea to get one from your doctor and add it to your file. Additionally, ask that your doctor explain why you need the device as if he is providing evidence to an insurance company. Ask that he be detailed and give clear reasons for prescribing the device. If you have a VA doctor, you may want to invest in getting this letter from a private physician. It’s possible that a VA doctor won’t agree to provide this letter for you.
- What if I don’t use my breathing device as often as I should or the way I’m supposed to? The VA rule change states: “If the competent medical evidence of record shows that use of a qualifying breathing assistance device is medically required, the fact that the claimant is not actually using it as prescribed is not relevant.” So for now, if your use of the breathing device is not compliant with the required use, the VA will not reduce or stop your benefits. However, all other medical systems require that, in order to be covered by insurance, a patient must use the breathing device properly and consistently. Thus, it’s possible that the VA will also require that a patient be compliant with his device.
If you are a veteran who suffers from sleep apnea due to your military service, and your symptoms make it difficult to work, or you were denied benefits for this condition, contact us at 402-933-5405. We’ll discuss your situation and determine how we can help get you the VA benefits you deserve.
I believe I’m suffering from fibromyalgia. What should I know about this condition, and can I get disability benefits?
Formerly known as fibrositis, fibromyalgia (FM) is a chronic condition that affects about five percent of the U.S. population. However, because the symptoms of FM vary by individual, it’s a difficult condition to diagnose. The statistics for people suffering from FM are often estimates rather than exact numbers.
While FM is a condition that affects many people, studies show that veterans of the Gulf War are more frequently diagnosed with FM than civilians or non-Gulf War veterans. Additionally, FM is more common in women and characterized by widespread pain in the body’s ligaments and muscles. Very often, people who suffer from FM have had the condition for years before their doctor makes the diagnosis.
According to the American College of Rheumatology, FM is the second most common medical condition that affects the musculoskeletal system (after osteoarthritis). Those with FM not only experience muscle tenderness and pain, they often have “trigger points” that are painful to the touch or with pressure. These trigger points are usually found on the shoulders, neck, arms, hips, and back. Interestingly, those suffering from FM find these trigger spots especially sensitive, but other similar spots on their body are not sensitive. Additionally, people who suffer from other chronic pain conditions such as arthritis don’t find that pressure on those trigger spots is painful.
If you suffer from FM, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits or benefits from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). To navigate the appeal process to receive benefits for FM, you may want a legal expert to help with your claim.
The Causes of Fibromyalgia
There is no known cause of FM; however, most researchers believe FM is a result of a combination of many types of stressors—not just caused by a single event. Additionally, there are some known factors believed to contribute to or be associated with the development of this condition. Here is a brief look at some factors connected with FM:
- Genetics. While there is no direct genetic link between people who suffer FM—the condition is not passed from parent to child—studies show that people who develop FM are likely to have a family member with this condition. FM has been shown to run in families, especially in mothers and daughters. Thus, it’s possible that heredity is a factor in developing FM.
- A stressful event. Some studies suggest that those people who have experienced physical or emotional trauma or abuse are more likely to suffer from FM.
- Chronic pain from another condition. FM has been linked with other illnesses. The chronic pain of arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and other autoimmune diseases can trigger or factor into the development of FM.
- Infection. Certain infections can bring about FM. Hepatitis C, the Epstein Barr virus, and other infections are linked to FM.
- Repetitive injuries. If you overuse your hands to perform a task repeatedly, such as working with the same tool throughout the day, typing, or writing, you may suffer from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). This can be a debilitating condition that has been linked to fibromyalgia.
- Age. While it’s possible for children to develop fibromyalgia, the ages of most who develop this condition range from 20 – 60 years old. Most people develop symptoms during middle age.
- Diet. It’s thought that certain foods may exacerbate the symptoms of FM, including caffeine, dairy, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, fried foods, salty foods, and alcohol.
Researchers do seem to agree that in those who suffer from FM, the brain and spinal cord seem to process pain sensations abnormally. The threshold for pain may be lower, and pain is felt more intensely because the abnormalities in the central nervous system amplify the pain.
We Can Help
FM isn’t a new disease, but only recently have researchers and doctors understood and accepted it. In the past, FM wasn’t always considered a real condition, and some believed it was “all in the head.” However, a 1981 scientific study confirmed FM symptoms and the associated trigger points. Since that time, more testing has been performed on the pain reactions in people with FM.
If you’re a civilian or a veteran and suffer from fibromyalgia and are unable to work, you may be eligible for Social Security or VA disability benefits. Or if you’ve applied and were denied benefits, call Cuddigan Law at (402) 933-5405. We’ll schedule an appointment to discuss your eligibility for compensation.
If I have a family history of RA, what signs and symptoms should I watch for?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most common type of inflammatory arthritis. It’s a chronic disease that causes stiffness, pain, redness, and swelling in the joints. In time, any of the joints that are impacted may become damaged, misaligned, and possibly misshapen. The joint’s tissue lining can thicken and wear away at the ligaments, bone, and cartilage that surround it. Most often, if you have RA in one hand or one knee, the joint in the other hand or knee will also have it.
People of every ethnic background, race, age, and gender can suffer from RA; however, approximately 75 percent are women. While the cause of RA isn’t known, researchers have a clearer picture of how genetics and the body’s immune system influence the inflammatory processes that factor into the development of RA.
If you are one of the 1.3 million Americans who suffer from RA, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). The SSA’s “Blue Book” Impairment Listing provides the criteria to qualify for benefits. Even if you’re eligible for disability, you may want a legal expert to help with your claim.
What Are the Symptoms of RA?
Morning stiffness is the trademark symptom of RA. Unlike stiffness from osteoarthritis (OA) that usually ends in about 30 minutes, the stiffness of RA can last for an hour or more. Patients usually experience worsened symptoms of stiffness after they’ve been sitting for a long time and after sleeping. Here is a brief look at other major symptoms of RA:
- Pain and swelling. Inflamed joints usually swell and feel warm to the touch. To be diagnosed with RA, joint pain and swelling must occur for six weeks or more. While symmetrical joints are usually affected—fingers on both hands, both knees, both shoulders—sometimes the pain may be more severe on one side of the body. Joints that are most commonly affected are the wrists and knuckles; however, the balls of the feet and knees are often impacted, too. Other joints may be attacked, including those in the shoulders, elbows, jaw, and cervical spine. It’s rare for RA to develop in the fingertips—it’s more common in OA. However, RA sufferers may feel pain at the base of the fingers.
- Nodules or lumps under the skin. When small blood vessels are inflamed, they can cause nodules or lumps under the skin. This occurs in approximately 20 percent of people who suffer from RA. These lumps are usually no larger than a pea and, although they can be located anywhere, they are most often found near the elbow. These nodules may occur throughout the duration of a patient’s condition. It’s possible for the nodules to become infected if they are in areas of the body that handle stress, such as the ankles; however, these infections are rare. Additionally, the occurrence of nodules may mean that the patient has rheumatoid vasculitis—which impacts the blood vessels in other organs such as the kidneys and lungs.
- A buildup of fluid. People who suffer from RA may accumulate fluid in certain areas of the body, especially in the ankles. Likewise, the joint sac behind the knee may collect fluid that can form into a Baker’s cyst—a tumor-like growth that can cause pain down the back of the calf.
- Characteristics of the flu. Sometimes the symptoms of RA present like the flu. Patients may feel tired, lose weight, and have a fever. These symptoms often occur in the early stages of RA and have been described as flu-like or similar to a cold.
- A rash. In children, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA)—also called Still’s disease—will often present with a pink skin rash along with a high fever, chills, and joint pain and swelling.
We Can Help
If you suffer from RA and are unable to work, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. Because the SSA recognizes the severity of RA and how debilitating it can be, you can qualify with the appropriate medical evidence. Let the lawyers at Cuddigan Law help you provide that evidence and submit your claim. Or if you’ve applied and were denied benefits, call us at (402) 933-5405. We’ll schedule an appointment to discuss your eligibility for compensation.
How does the VA rate my arthritis disability?
According to an article in the 2012 Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, U.S. soldiers and veterans have been significantly affected by osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). OA occurs when cartilage—a connective, structural tissue in the body that’s more flexible than bone—breaks down. RA is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the lining of the joints. Both types of arthritis are painful and sometimes debilitating.
In active service personnel under 40, OA is the leading cause of disability and medical discharge, and those on active duty as well as veterans are two times more likely to suffer from OA than civilians. When a soldier is diagnosed with RA during active duty, the Medical Evaluation Board automatically sets up a hearing that usually results in the soldier’s medical discharge from service. Between 2003 and 2009, Army statistics reported that the number of soldiers medically retired from the Army with at least one type of musculoskeletal condition increased almost 10 times.
Because arthritis is so prevalent in soldiers and veterans, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determined that this condition is service-connected if diagnosed within a year of discharge. However, if symptoms of arthritis present in later years, you may still be eligible for VA disability.
Why Soldiers Are At a Higher Risk for Arthritis
OA can impact any joint in the body, but it most often affects weight-bearing joints: the ankles, spine, knees, and sometimes fingers. Often called the “wear-and-tear disease,” OA is painful because when the cartilage breaks down, bare bones rub together. Over time, those bones can thicken, become malformed, and form bony spurs—all of which create pain that can be debilitating.
Soldiers are at an increased risk for OA because the wear and tear on their joints can be extreme and excessive. Those in active duty face rigorous training, multiple deployments, and carry heavy equipment and body armor that can create intense pressure on joints and contribute to arthritis. In the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, service personnel carried between 80 and 120 pounds of gear. While troops now have lighter tactical gear that is often less than 20 pounds, they may still need to wear heavier armor under certain circumstances.
Additionally, combat wounds such as joint injuries from shrapnel and broken bones from roadside bombs can eventually lead to OA. During the Iraq war, a study of service personnel who were injured on the battlefield found that OA was the main reason these soldiers were discharged.
How the VA Rates Arthritis
If you have service-connected arthritis, a VA rating specialist will look at the following factors when determining your rating:
- Functional loss. This rating focuses on the limitations of the joint’s range of motion. For example, the VA rating specialist will evaluate an arthritic knee by its ability to perform normal, working movements.
- Instability. The VA rating specialist will categorize instability of the joint in three ways: slight (10%), moderate (20%), or severe (30%). It’s important that your doctor use these three terms to explain your limitations due to arthritis. Additionally, he should explain why your condition falls into that particular category.
- Pain. Most veterans with arthritis experience pain. While the VA rating system doesn’t usually recognize pain as a disability, it may be factored in for arthritis—especially if it affects the knee. Even if your range of motion is fine, and there appears to be no functional loss, the VA may still grant a rating in this category if you can provide evidence that the range of motion is affected by pain when the joint is used in a normal, repetitive way. The VA may recognize that the pain is impacting your ability to use that joint.
If you suffer from OA or RA, and your symptoms make it difficult or impossible to work or sustain gainful employment, you may be eligible for VA disability benefits. Or if you’ve applied and were denied benefits, call Cuddigan Law at (402) 933-5405 Be sure to ask for a copy of our free book, The Essential Guide to VA Disability Claims.
Questions and Answers About Military Sexual Trauma
A significant number of service personnel have experienced military sexual trauma (MST), according to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Defined by the VA as threatening, repetitive sexual harassment or sexual assault, including, rape, MST also includes other types of trauma, including pressure to engage in any type of sexual activity that has implied benefits or threatens negative consequences, unwanted sexual touching or advances, and objectionable and offensive remarks about any person’s body or sexual behavior.
In 1991, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced a Zero Tolerance Policy against acts of sexual misconduct. However, these incidents have steadily increased. In 2013, The Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) was introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to change how serious military crimes and offenses—specifically, sexual assaults—are taken to trial. The Act was meant to reform the court-martial trial process, requiring an officer outside of the victim’s chain of command to make the determination about whether the accused should be court-martialed. In 2014 and 2015, the Senate blocked passage of this Act.
Questions About MST
In what’s been called a “culture of sexual assault” in the military, there are many questions about what happens after experiencing a MST. Here are some of the most common questions about sexual trauma in the military and some general answers to those questions:
How many service members have experienced a MST?
Since 2006, it’s reported that over 95,000 military service members have been sexually assaulted. It’s also estimated that in the past 25 years, over 500,000 people in the military have been victims of this crime. In 2012, active duty members who participated in an anonymous survey reported approximately 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact. This contact included aggravated sexual assault, coerced and abusive sexual contact, and rape.
Are women more likely to experience a MST than men?
Both men and women suffer from MST. In a recent, one-year study of service members on active duty, 5 percent of women and 1 percent of men reported experiencing a sexual assault; and 22 percent of women and 7 percent of men experienced sexual harassment. Moreover, of those military members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who responded to a recent survey, 48,100 women and 43,700 men reported suffering a MST.
In a report released in 2014, the findings show that military sexual assault is a problem that affects both males and females. Nate Galbreath, senior executive adviser for the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention office, says, “There’s still a misperception that this is a women’s issue and women’s crime.” Data analysis by the Associated Press (AP) found that 1.2 percent of the men surveyed said they’d been sexually assaulted compared to 6.8 percent of the women. “But there are vastly more men in the military,” says the AP. “By the raw numbers, a bit more than 12,000 women said they were assaulted compared with nearly 14,000 men.”
Are all MSTs reported?
According to the DoD, approximately 19,000 incidents of military sexual assault occur every year, and it’s estimated that 85 percent are never reported. Additionally, about 75 percent of both men and women who were sexually assaulted didn’t report these incidents.
What makes reporting a MST so difficult?
For any victim of a sexual assault, reporting the incident can be emotionally daunting and threatening. But there are special factors that make reporting a MST unique in the military. Here are a few of those factors:
- It’s likely that the victim may work in the same service area as the person responsible for the assault—a colleague or teammate—or may live in the same barracks. The victim may have to rely on that person for safety, food, and even health care.
- Victims may feel that speaking out or reporting the assault may make them appear vulnerable or weak in front of their units. They may also feel they’ll lose the respect of their peers.
- Victims may worry that reporting the assault will damage the team spirit or camaraderie of the unit if the assailant is in the same unit.
- Victims may worry because the assailant may have control over their career status and possibility for promotion, and the victim may feel helpless in reporting an incident to that person and may worry that another attack will occur.
Because of these factors, service personnel may feel they face a no-win situation and believe they are trapped by their special circumstances.
What are some of the emotional and psychological problems and outcomes military victims face after a MST?
Military personnel who suffer a MST may experience symptoms soon after the incident or may have psychological and physical symptoms years later. These symptoms can be debilitating and create the following long-term, severe problems:
- A MST can cause panic attacks, depression, anxiety disorders, as well as conditions related to substance abuse.
- It is nine times more likely that a female veteran who was sexually assaulted will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- According to a 1996 study, female veterans become homeless “at a rate 3 to 4 times greater” than civilian women. Additionally, 53 percent of homeless female veterans have suffered MST.
- Military personnel who report a MST are three times more likely to suffer from PTSD, anxiety disorders, and mental disorders—most specifically depression. Additionally, female veterans are likely to develop PTSD over other female veterans who did not experience a MST.
- Female victims of a MST are likely to suffer from eating disorders.
- Headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and pelvic pain are also physical health issues experienced by those suffering from MST.
- MST can affect a victim’s life with a variety of problems, including, difficulty feeling safe, having disturbing nightmares or memories, feeling numb, feeling isolated, problems with irritability and anger, and problems sleeping.
Is there a connection between MST and the rate of suicide in military personnel?
According to a U.S. study, veterans who experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault are at an increased risk of suicide. VA researchers found that men who experienced a MST are more likely to commit suicide by 70 percent over veterans who did not suffer from MST. Likewise, female veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide if they had experienced MST. Moreover, Susan McCutcheon, national mental health director for family services, women’s mental health, and MST at the VA says, “The study found that those veterans who died by suicide were significantly more likely to be treated for mental health conditions that were related to their MST experience.”
How many of the assailants are prosecuted?
It’s likely that any military personnel who rapes or sexually assaults a service member won’t be punished, disciplined, or convicted of a crime. It’s estimated that an assailant of a sexual assault will have over and 85 percent chance of having the assault kept secret and over 90 percent chance of not being court-martialed.
In some respects, this may be considered a vicious cycle. Victims are discouraged from reporting the assault because of the military’s culture of acceptance along with few prosecutions and the intimidating chain of command structure, so the assaults continue.
Moreover, military personnel risk investigation of their sexual personal history, ridicule, demotion, and involuntary discharge if they report a sexual assault by a command officer. A reportedly 90 percent of MST survivors are involuntarily discharged; 80 percent of accused assailants are discharged with honor.
Am I eligible for disability if I’ve experienced a MST?
You may be eligible for VA disability after suffering a MST, but there is key information you must include when making your application. While the VA recognizes you may not have documentation that proves the assault happened and will accept other evidence, it does require evidence that you suffer from a disabling physical or mental disability and that disability was caused or made worse by the assault that took place during your service. Additionally, to submit a successful MST claim, it’s helpful if you have a doctor write a Nexus letter.
If you experienced a MST and suffer from a debilitating condition related to that incident, you may be eligible for VA disability benefits. Or if you’ve applied and were denied benefits, call Cuddigan Law at (402) 933-5405. We’ll schedule an appointment to discuss your eligibility for compensation. Be sure to ask for a copy of our free book, The Essential Guide to VA Disability Claims.
What evidence do I need to receive VA benefits for a military sexual trauma?
Sexual assault and sexual harassment occur all too frequently in the U.S. military. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) defines military sexual trauma (MST) as threatening, repetitive sexual harassment or sexual assault, including rape. According to the VA, significant numbers of female and male veterans have suffered sexual assault during their military service—nearly one in five females and one in 100 males.
While sexual assault and rape are the most common form of MST, the VA includes other types of trauma in this category, including:
- Pressure to engage in any type of sexual activity that has implied benefits
- Pressure to engage in any type of sexual activity under the threat of negative consequences
- The inability of a person to consent to any type of sexual activity
- Any type of unwanted sexual touching
- Any type of unwanted or threatening sexual advances
- Any type of offensive or objectionable remarks about the body or sexual behavior of any military person
Military personnel can experience an MST while on duty or off and while on base or off. Because the person responsible for the assault may be a colleague or teammate who works in the same service area, may have control over the victim’s service career and promotions, or may live in the same barracks, the victim may have heightened fears of helplessness and worry about the possibility that the attack will happen again.
If you’ve experienced a MST, it’s possible you’re eligible for VA disability; however, there are important elements you need to include with your claim.
Evidence for a Successful MST Disability Claim
The VA is committed to help MST victims because it recognizes the significance and seriousness of a sexual assault. The VA asks all veterans who seek health care if they’ve suffered an MST, and then the data is tracked to record and document how many times any type of incident has occurred. While it’s believed that many MSTs are not reported, the VA’s national screening program reports that approximately 1 in 100 men and 1 in 4 women have experienced some type of sexual trauma.
The VA also recognizes that veterans who experience an MST may suffer from follow-on conditions because of the traumatic incident. Consequently, you are eligible for VA disability benefits for a debilitating mental or physical condition that was due to the MST if you can prove the following:
- An MST incident occurred while you were on active duty.
- Your doctor has now diagnosed you with some type of mental or physical disability such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, or symptoms related to substance abuse.
- Your disability happened because of the MST incident that took place while you were in the service, or your condition was made worse because of that incident.
Because the VA realizes you may not have a military medical record that shows proof of the MST, it accepts other types of substantiating evidence, including:
- Any type of documentation or records showing that you requested a transfer out of your unit.
- Any proof that you have a problem with substance abuse.
- Any proof that shows your job performance has changed, you’re exhibiting changes in social behavior, or your economic situation has changed.
- Any proof that you’re exhibiting incidents of depression or anxiety.
- Any and all police or rape crisis center records.
- Any medical records that show you’ve had tests for sexually transmitted diseases or a pregnancy test.
- Any acknowledgement or statements from counselors, military co-workers, family, friends, or clergy who know what happened.
- Any documentation you’ve kept on your own, including journals or diaries that detail the trauma.
What to Do If Your Claim Is Denied
It’s possible that the VA will deny your claim because it believes you haven’t provided enough evidence. Even though the VA accepts that there’s a service connection even without medical records from your time in service that prove an MST, many times claims are denied because that evidence doesn’t exist. If you’ve been denied or your application is being processed, you’re still eligible to receive counseling and other health care services for medical issues related to your MST. The VA has improved and increased resourcing to help veterans address these related conditions.
If you experienced an MST and suffer from a debilitating condition like PTSD or depression, or the VA denied your MST compensation, it’s often difficult to win an appeal, and it’s helpful if you have a disability attorney to help you. Call Cuddigan Law at (402) 933-5405. We’ll schedule an appointment to discuss your eligibility for compensation. Be sure to ask for a copy of our free book, The Essential Guide to VA Disability Claims.
Because I’m at a higher risk for a stroke following my TBI, what signs and symptoms should I watch for?
As researchers have studied the after effects of a traumatic brain injury (TBI), they’ve found a connection between TBIs and a greater risk for stroke. In 2013, a study in Neurology journal reported that there may be an over 30 percent greater risk of stroke compared to patients who’ve suffered trauma that was not associated with an injury to the brain.
When the head suffers a violent blow or is punctured by some type of sharp object, a person can suffer a TBI. Most TBIs are mild and heal by themselves. But some are severe and can cause significant damage to the brain. The swift movement of the brain inside the skull can cause short-term loss or serious trauma where the brain may bruise, bleed, or swell.
A stroke occurs when your brain doesn’t get enough blood. If that blood supply is blocked or interrupted, your brain won’t get the necessary nutrients and oxygen—and this will cause brain cells to die. Typically, a stroke is a blocked blood vessel that decreases blood flow to the brain, or it’s a brain hemorrhage.
Either of these two conditions alone can be debilitating, but together, they may be completely disabling. Both TBIs and strokes are responsible for serious disability in adults who are under the age of 65—20 percent experience a stroke, and 40 percent experience a TBI. Following a stroke, approximately 75 percent of patients face after effects and additional medical problems—some of these make it impossible for the patient to work.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes TBIs and stroke in its “Blue Book” listing of impairments. If you’ve experienced a TBI and then suffered a stroke, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits.
Types of Stroke
There are three types of strokes: an ischemic stroke, a hemorrhagic stroke, and a transient ischemic attack (TIA). Each of these has distinct symptoms and characteristics and is discussed below:
Approximately 85 percent of stroke patients suffer an ischemic stroke. This type of stroke happens when blood flow to the brain is severely reduced due to a narrowing or blockage in the arteries. The most common ischemic strokes include:
- Thrombotic stroke. This type of stroke happens if a blood clot—thrombus—develops in any of the arteries carrying blood to your brain. There are a variety of causes for a clot. Fatty deposits or plaque can build up in your arteries and reduce the flow of blood to your brain; or, you may have other artery conditions.
- Embolic stroke. This type of stroke also involves a blood clot or other debris that develops in some other area of your body—often in your heart. When this clot or debris moves through your bloodstream, it can get caught in brain arteries that are narrow. This blood clot is called an embolus.
This type of stroke happens when there’s a rupture or leak in the brain’s blood vessels. High blood pressure, weak spots in the walls of your blood vessels, and overtreatment through the use of anticoagulants can all result in a hemorrhagic stroke. The types of hemorrhagic stroke include:
- Intracerebral hemorrhage. This occurs when a diseased blood vessel inside the brain bursts, causing blood leakage within the brain. The sudden pressure increase in the brain can damage the brain cells that surround the blood.
- Subarachnoid hemorrhage. This is also known as an aneurysm. It happens if the arteries that are on or near the brain surface burst and “spill” into the area between the skull and the surface of the brain. Often, a sudden, extreme headache will signal this bleeding.
Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)
A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is also known as a ministroke. It’s characterized by a short period of time with symptoms similar to regular stroke. Typically lasting less than five minutes, a TIA occurs when there’s a temporary reduction in the blood to your brain.
Similar to an ischemic stroke, a blood clot or debris gets lodged in an artery and blocks blood from getting to your brain. Usually the block is temporary, and symptoms of a TIA don’t last long.
We Can Help
After applying for disability benefits for a stroke, it often takes the SS additional time to make a determination on your claim. The Social Security Administration delays stroke claims for at least three months because it’s not possible to measure the long-term limitations of a stroke until some time has passed.
If you have suffered a TBI and are disabled in the aftermath of your stroke, and your symptoms prevent you from sustaining gainful employment, you may well be entitled to Social Security disability benefits. However, we understand that finding the right kind of help isn’t always easy. At Cuddigan Law, we know the rules and restrictions that govern disability for TBIs and strokes. Call us at (402) 933-5405 for a free evaluation of your case
What is the VA Polytrauma System of Care, and how can it help me?
Combat service can make soldiers especially vulnerable to a traumatic brain injury (TBI)—particularly those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Exposure to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), land mines, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortar rounds increases the risk of suffering a TBI. However, a TBI can happen to anyone, not just military personnel. It’s possible for the head to experience a severe blow or violent jolt for many reasons. Car accidents, sports-related incidents, and slip and falls can all result in a brain injury. Because the force of the blow jostles the brain from side to side inside the skull, the brain can bruise, bleed, or become damaged at the points of impact.
When combat soldiers are involved in a blast or an explosion, they often suffer additional injuries along with a TBI. This is called polytrauma. The term polytrauma means that multiple injuries have occurred to more than one organ and body part during a traumatic event. One of the injuries is usually considered life threatening, and all of the injuries occur in a single event. Along with a TBI, a soldier can suffer visual and hearing problems, the loss of a limb, a spinal cord injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other physical, emotional, psychological, and cognitive damage.
Because military personnel often experience severe and complex polytrauma injuries, they require specialized support services. Consequently, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) makes available a program to help treat polytrauma. The Polytrauma System of Care (PSC) provides care and treatment for veterans who suffer the effects of just a TBI or other health conditions, illnesses, or injuries that are a result of the same event.
What Criteria Is Needed for Admission Into a PSC?
The VA provides basic guidelines about who can be admitted into a PSC program. In general, all veterans who were discharged from military service under any condition other than dishonorable, qualified to receive disability benefits, and are medically stable can be admitted into the PSC. The patient must:
- Have suffered multiple injuries—cognitive, physical, or emotional—that are secondary to the trauma
- Not be breathing on a ventilator
- Show that he will likely benefit from a rehabilitation program
- Show that he does not require one-to-one staffing for any reasons, including behavioral or medical
- Show the need for an extensive and complete rehabilitation care plan and evaluation
Additionally, the VA accepts referrals for admission into the PSC. These referrals can come from Department of Defense (DOD) sources, the TRICARE healthcare program, sources within the VA medical center, and even self-referrals, family referrals, and from those who are non-VA healthcare providers.
The Importance of Rehabilitation After a TBI
A critical part of the recovery process after a TBI is rehabilitation. The goal is to help the patient function in everyday life. Medical personnel show patients how to adjust to their disabilities and modify their living environment to make day-to-day activities and routines easier to deal with.
After experiencing a TBI, some patients need medication to address physical and psychiatric issues. It’s important that medical personnel prescribe and administer these medications carefully because those who have suffered a TBI are sensitive and susceptible to side effects, and some patients may have adverse reactions to some medicines. Additionally, it’s helpful if family members provide support by being a part of the program. The PSCs can provide guidance for this.
A service member who is injured in active duty is usually treated at a Department of Defense (DoD) Military Treatment Facility—at first to a facility abroad and then at a facility stateside. If the soldier’s injuries were severe, he may need rehabilitation services after being discharged. After the soldier is stabilized, he is typically transferred to a VA PRC for acute, inpatient rehab. At these centers, TBI treatment focuses on helping the patient cope with the changes in a normal, daily routine. This may involve the patient learning about the medications necessary to take care of the medical issues and understanding ways to deal with cognitive, behavioral, and health problems. Additionally, the patient may need to learn more about attending physical, occupational, and speech-language therapies and dealing with new technology devices that will provide assistance.
We Can Help
If you suffered a TBI during your military service, it’s essential that you receive the right kind of care to support your recovery. Likewise, getting the proper compensation payments is critical to your future. At Cuddigan Law, we understand the appeal process for those who seek and need disability for TBIs. We know that TBI disability cases are challenging, but we also know it’s possible to win them. Call us at (402) 933-5405 for a free evaluation of your case.
How will a TBI change my life, and can I receive Social Security disability benefits?
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can occur when the head is shaken or hit in a violent way. For example, if you are in a vehicle accident, suffer a slip and fall, are involved in a sports-related collision, or are subjected to a blast—specifically veterans who experience an explosion from an improvised explosive device (IED)—you may suffer a TBI. When a forceful blow moves the brain back and forth inside the skull, it can cause contusions or bruising. The quick head movement can cause stress that damages brain tissues because nerve fibers get pulled apart.
When a person experiences a blow to the head, the result can be a concussion or a closed head injury. Most often, a concussion is not life threatening, so it’s considered a “mild” brain injury. Usually, a person suffering a concussion will feel confused or dazed and only lose consciousness for a brief period. However, there are also moderate and severe TBIs that are much more serious. In 2010, TBIs were associated with approximately 2.5 million visits to the emergency room, hospitalizations, and deaths. Thirty percent of all U.S. injury-related deaths are due to TBIs, and nearly half of patients with a TBI require surgery to repair or remove a contusion or hematoma.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s estimated that over five million people in the U.S. have long-term or life-altering disabilities because of a TBI.
Questions About TBIs
Doctors typically classify TBIs according to their severity: mild, moderate, or severe. Most people experience mild TBIs, and their symptoms improve over time. However, each brain injury is unique, and symptoms of a TBI are different for each individual and for each part of the brain that’s affected during the injury. Because the consequences and end result of each TBI type can be varied and individualized, there are many questions about what happens after experiencing a blow to the head. Here are some of the most common questions about TBIs and some general answers to those questions:
What types of injuries cause brain trauma?
There are typically four types of injury that can cause a TBI:
- A closed head injury. This occurs when the force to the head causes brain tissue to strike the sides of the skull. This impact can cause bruising, bleeding, neurochemical changes, and a buildup of pressure or fluid.
- A penetrating injury. This occurs when some type of object pierces the skull and harms the brain. This can include gunshot wounds, open fractures, or any foreign object entering the brain. Considered life-threatening, a penetrating injury requires immediate medical attention.
- An anoxic injury. Also called cerebral hypoxia, this type of injury happens when oxygen is cut off or reduced for four minutes, causing brain cells to die. After five minutes without oxygen, a person can suffer permanent anoxic brain injury. Anoxic brain injury is life-threatening, and the longer a person suffers oxygen loss, the more serious the brain injury.
- A toxic injury. This type of brain injury happens through exposure to toxic chemicals—chemicals that can kill or damage brain cells because they’re able to cross the blood-brain barriers.
How will a TBI affect me?
A person who suffers a TBI may experience thought-related changes, physical changes, and personality or behavioral changes. Depending on the severity of the brain injury, he may experience none or many of the following changes:
- Shorter attention span
- Problems with memory
- Impaired judgment
- Impaired reading and writing skills
- Difficulty with problem solving
- Impaired communication skills
- Paralysis—full or partial
- Problems sleeping
- Problems with muscle coordination
- Feelings of weakness
- Traumatic epilepsy—seizures
Personality and behavioral changes:
- Problems controlling emotions
- Increased feelings of irritation or frustration
- Problems with social skills
- Severe mood swings
- Feelings of depression
If I have a TBI, can I receive Social Security Disability?
If you suffered a TBI, finding the right kind of help isn’t always easy. At Cuddigan Law, we understand the rules and restrictions that govern Social Security disability for TBIs. We know that TBI disability cases are challenging, but we also know it’s possible to win them. Call us at (402) 933-5405 for a free evaluation of your case.