COLORADO SPRINGS — On Thursday, Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper sent a letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough, requesting data about families who have lost a service member to suicide and their access to benefits.
Specifically, the letter wants the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to outline the rate at which families who lose a veteran family member to suicide seek benefits, and the rate at which those claims are denied.
CLICK HERE to read the full letter from Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper.
The senators wrote the letter after hearing from veteran advocates in Colorado who say "the burden of proof of eligibility is too high" for family members who are seeking benefits following a loved one's suicide.
One of those advocates who started contacting the politicians around six months ago is Kent Jarnig, the chair of the El Paso County Progressive Veterans. "We are so much closer than we've ever been before to fixing this, to moving forward, to helping families stay out of living out of their car, food stamps, while the VA thinks about it... Sometimes it can take years, and that simply isn't fair," said Jarnig, referencing the time it can take to receive benefits.
The 2020 Annual Suicide Report from the Department of Defense states 580 service members died by suicide. Former US Army Captain Joe Reagan did two tours in Afghanistan, and said he has lost more soldiers to suicide than in combat. "Veteran suicide is one of those issues that is tremendously complex... A vast majority of veterans who take their own life will have never sought care through the veterans administration," said Reagan.
Veteran advocates in Colorado Springs have often told me that the VA process to demonstrate the service connection of a loved one’s suicide is extremely difficult and emotionally taxing. These families are already tremendously burdened by the loss of a loved one and should not struggle to claim the benefits they deserve.
A spokesperson with the VA said they received the letter and will respond to the senators.
In a previous article, News5 reached out to the VA with a handful of questions on the subject. The following are the exact answers received:
1. Is it accurate that family members do not get survivor benefits if they die by suicide?
No, this is not accurate. Every situation is different. If VA can connect the suicide to a service-connected illness or injury, then the death is considered to be related, or “service connected.” The surviving spouse and dependent children could then be eligible for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Education Benefits, Home Loan Guaranty and other survivor benefits.
2. What are the different VA survivor benefits a family would receive?
Survivor benefits include Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, survivors pension, education benefits, home loan guaranty, burial benefits and CHAMPVA (i.e., health care for the spouse or child of a deceased or disabled Veteran).
Here is a link to more information: https://www.va.gov/opa/persona/dependent_survivor.asp [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]
3. If a family is denied benefits because of a suicide, what is the appeals process?
To clarify, a survivor would not be denied benefits “because of a suicide”; however, if VA determines that the death is not service connected, the survivor may appeal that decision. The appeals process is standardized for every type of claim. Through the Appeals Modernization Act, the survivor may disagree with VA’s decision by filing a supplemental claim (opportunity to submit more evidence), a higher-level review (closed-record review of the previous decision by a more senior adjudicator) or appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (with a review by, and opportunity for a hearing before, a Veterans Law Judge). Information regarding appeals rights is provided to every claimant in VA’s decision notification letters.
Here is a link to more information: Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 (va.gov) [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]
4. Is this a policy or law? How would this policy be changed?
Title 38, Code of Federal Regulations §3.302; §3.302 Service connection for mental unsoundness in suicide. [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com] Service connection for mental unsoundness in suicide. This section discusses suicide is not a service-connected disability. If the VA can connect the suicide to a service-connected illness or injury, then the death is considered service connected. If Congress wanted VA to determine any Veteran suicide is related to service – regardless of whether the suicide was related to a service-connected disability – then Congress would have to pass a law on this matter.
5. Is depression considered a disability or injury? Does it have to be documented while the service member is active duty for it to be considered service-related, or could that determination be made after?
Major Depressive Disorder and Persistent Depressive Disorder are examples of mental health diagnoses that can be assigned disability ratings by VBA. They do not need to be secondary to a physical injury or traumatic event to be recognized. For the purposes of disability compensation benefits, depression, when diagnosed, is considered a disability and Veterans may be eligible to receive benefits based on this condition. A diagnosis of or treatment for depression does not need to be explicitly documented in the Veteran’s service records for VA to grant benefits. VA will review and consider all the evidence of record, which may include other types of evidence such as lay testimony and private treatment records subsequent to the Veteran’s active duty service. If the evidence of record shows that a Veteran’s disability is related to their military service, VA would grant service connection and subsequently disability compensation benefits.
Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are mental health disorders. PTSD can occur after a traumatic event such as military combat, a physical assault, or a natural disaster. Depression can be caused by many factors to include stress, life altering events, genetics and the brain’s inability to regulate one’s mood resulting. Either of these conditions may result in a disability.
6. Is PTSD considered a disability or injury? Does it have to be documented while the service member is active duty for it to be considered service-related, or could that determination be made after?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is considered a disability and Veterans can be assigned a disability rating by VBA. Like Major Depressive Disorder or Persistent Depressive Disorder, a diagnosis of, or treatment for PTSD, does not need to be explicitly documented in the Veteran’s service records for VA to grant benefits. VA will review and consider all evidence of record, which may include other types of evidence such as lay testimony and private treatment records subsequent to the Veteran’s active duty service. If the evidence of record shows that a Veteran’s PTSD is related to their military service, VA would grant service connection and subsequently disability compensation benefits.
Unlike claims for other mental health diagnoses, a claim for service connection for PTSD requires association with an in-service stressor/event. There are different types of events that constitute an in-service stressor that include:
1) Engaging in combat with enemy forces
2) Fear of hostile military or terrorist activity
4) In-service personal assault
5) Traumatic event
7. If a death is determined to be not service connected, are survivor benefits initially denied?
If a death is determined not to be service connected, some survivor benefits are denied. However, not all benefits would be denied; for example, if a Veteran served at least one day during a war time period and financial need is demonstrated, a survivor may still be eligible for some benefits. Other benefits, such as Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) would be initially denied.
Benefits a survivor may apply for include Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, burial allowance, survivors’ pension, education benefits, home loan guaranty, burial benefits and CHAMPVA (i.e., health care for the spouse or child of a deceased or disabled Veteran). Additional information can be found at:
8. How long on average does an appeals process take? A few weeks, months, years?
Under the Appeals Modernization Act framework implemented in 2019, VBA has been deciding requests for Higher-Level Reviews of decisions and related work in less than 90 days on average this fiscal year; compared to the legacy appeals process, which often took three to seven years for resolution.