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

Caroline May | 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.”

A Veterans Affairs Committee source told TheDC that the committee is looking into the “very serious allegations” to make sure that “veterans benefits go only to those who have earned them.”

A VA spokesman told TheDC that much of the recent expansion in sleep apnea claims is due to heightened awareness of the illness and the available compensation.

“I think there is more of an awareness of this particular illness and there is an awareness both in folks in active duty as well as when they leave active duty that [sleep apnea] is potentially compensable,” the spokesman explained. “So that may — and  I mean we have done a lot of outreach to service members that are getting ready to get out, retirees that are getting ready to get out, veterans that have already been out. And veterans’ service organizations certainly are aware of conditions veterans can file for compensation.”

Webster — whose father, as a young Marine, lost his right arm in a battleship explosion at sea —- however, told TheDC the issue is the there are veterans with “real” injuries and the sleep apnea claim does not meet a reasonable level of disability.

“I see people claiming disability that aren’t,” he said. “I also see visually in this community real disabled veterans, meaning they have traumatic brain injury, they have real PTSD from real combat, this is real stuff, they have real loss of limbs. To see someone come in and say, ‘I cant sleep at night, and oh, yeah, I’m still working full time, get a disability pay’ rankles me to the core, and it’s massive.”

The VA spokesman said it is not up to the VA to decide what is legitimate and what it not, and that the department is just following current guidelines. In 1996, sleep apnea was added to the VA disability rating schedule as a compensable condition.

“The issue of disability compensation and what we’re responsible for is — if something happen while they were in service or was aggravated by service and they have a present medical condition and we can connect the two together then this country has decided they are entitled to disability compensation related to that issue. We don’t make the judgment of whether it should or shouldn’t be, we look at the evidence that is presented to us and basically rate based on that. If Congress wants to look at that and take different perspectives on things … that would be for them to have to look into.”

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