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VA disability claims for sleep apnea skyrocket to over $1.2 billion per year

Photo of Caroline May
Caroline May
Political Reporter

The Department of Veterans Affairs is reportedly spending over $1.2 billion per year to treat sleep apnea, leading one attorney to call on Congress to investigate.

The number of veterans and military retirees receiving disability compensation from the VA for sleep apnea has skyrocketed in recent years.

In 2012, the number of veterans and retirees drawing payments for sleep apnea was 114,103, almost double the number the VA reported in 2009 (57,679).

The number of veterans added to the rolls from 2001 to 2012 increased by a factor of 25. 983 veterans began to draw disability compensation for sleep apnea in 2001, and in 2012, 24,791 were added to the rolls to treat the condition, according to a report by Tom Philpott in the military publication Stars and Stripes.

Philpott estimated that VA compensation for the condition now costs more than $1.2 billion annually.

Former naval aviator and Shalimar, Fla. attorney, Michael T. Webster, is trying to raise awareness about what he believes to be “legions of military retirees who have no legitimate disabilities whatsoever who are, in essence, scamming and manipulating the VA Disability system,” and is calling on his congressman, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, to investigate. Miller is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

To be sure the number of sleep apnea cases represents a small fraction of disability compensation claims. In 2012, nearly 14.5 million total veterans were receiving disability compensation, that year 114,103 were receiving payments for sleep apnea.

In a letter to Miller, first reported by Philpott in Stars and Stripes, Webster explained that as a family lawyer in a military-heavy community, he is seeing first hand “a very disturbing trend” of “widespread abuse of VA disability claims based upon a single ‘disability’ known as sleep apnea,” (emphasis, Webster’s).

“Virtually every single family law case which I have handled involving military members during the past three years has had the military retiree receiving a VA ‘disability’ based upon sleep apnea,” he wrote, in the letter dated May 6.

“A recently-retired colonel has told me that military members approaching retirement are actually briefed that if they claim VA disability based upon sleep apnea, then they will receive an automatic 50 percent disability rating thereby qualifying for ‘concurrent’ payment status,” he added.

According to Webster, none of the sleep apnea compensation recipients he has seen have been disabled at all and most work full time — including retired Air Force pilots that pass flight physicals after retirement in order to get flying jobs.

“But this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Webster told TheDC in a phone interview Monday. “Sleep apnea is what I call the darling of the disabilities. It’s the new fad, it’s what we get to have our little disability pay come in and no one is checking. And mass amounts of money are going out the door.”