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Sleep apnea claims growing rapidly in VA


It's a disability that causes sleep deprivation, and it's getting more and more popular among veterans.

Sleep apnea claims for Veteran's Affairs have nearly doubled in the past three years. In 2009 the total sleep apnea claims were 57,679 and in 2012 they were 114,103. The benefits are also more than some other disability claims, including some amputations.

"I think that sleep apnea because it's kind of skyrocketed over the past three years to me, seems like it maybe needs to be re-evaluated as to the percentage that it's given," McLennan County Service Officer Steve Hernandez said.

Hernandez has a book that shows how much each disability claim is worth. He says the money depends on the severity of the condition. However, some need to be reviewed. The book shows a normal sleep apnea condition gets a 50 percent rating. That compares to a 30 percent rating for someone with a toe amputation and a 40 percent rating for someone with a lower leg amputation. The lower leg amputation is, however, available for special monthly compensation.

Those percentages go to VA disability compensation rates that are set for current cost of living. Those with children also get a little more. According to the rates a family with children can get up to $1,000 a month.

Hernandez says many veterans have questioned those ratings.

"Usually about well how can you compare this particular disability with say sleep apnea. Why does sleep apnea have this much of a percentage, some of the other disabilities that are being claimed don't," Hernandez said.

Rodney Richie is a lung specialist in Waco. He says sleep apnea is when the throat collapses and blocks the airway to the lungs. It's mainly caused by obesity but it can also be caused by genetics.

"Not everybody who snores has sleep apnea, but people who do snore who stop breathing, those are the ones that are likely to have sleep apnea," Richie said.

Richie says the treatment is pretty easy, you put a mask on while you sleep and it gives a constant flow of air to open up the passageway. However, many people have trouble finding the right size of mask.

Even with the ease of treatment though, Richie says it is a disability.

"There's significant heart and vascular events like heart attacks and stroke that occur much more frequently in sleep apnea than not," Richie said.

Richie did say he has not heard of any activity in the military that can cause sleep apnea. Hernandez said that's not surprising because veterans get benefits by getting treated with something while in the military. As long as a veteran was treated for sleep apnea while he or she was active, then they can get benefits.

Hernandez also says while he does believe some of the ratings do need to be reviewed, he does not know what patients with sleep apnea go through.

"At the same time I'm not either an amputee but I also know that there are some percentage disparity that I feel like sometimes maybe need revisited," Hernandez said.

Hernandez also says many of the ratings, that are still used today, were created just after WWII.

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