VA funding of service dogs: a second look…

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Several blogs and Facebook pages cheered this week when then VA announced it would fund the costs of service dogs for veterans.  freedom-service-dogs-pkg-tr.jpg?w=1500Ostensibly, this was something to rave about. In reality,    there was little to celebrate and the impact on veterans most in need of canine assistance will not be impacted at this time.

The VA decided two years ago, decided to pay ay for costs only associated with a service dog, but only in cases of physical disability.  That means that dogs needed for mobility, hearing, sight would be covered.  Psychiatric issues, like PTSD, were not to be covered.because the VA felt there was not enough evidence to show that the dogs were efficacious.  Despite the wealth of information available to show that service dogs save lives and improve quality of life the VA started an  administratively bloated study to determine if dogs could make a difference in the lives of vets.

The news release this week made it seem like the VA had shifted position. They have not. The only new feature in their policy is that Truepanion insurance company will be paying four the care of dogs “eligible” according to existing regulations.

Currently to get a dog you must have recommendations from your treatment  team, an evaluation by the appropriate clinic (ortho, audiology…) and then go through the prosthetic department who must requisition the dog from Washington, DC.  In addition, the VA also requires you to attend and complete a training course with your dog through Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation.  Once completed, the VA will pay for the costs associated with veterinary care, travel associated with buying and training the dog, along with hardware required for the dog to be able to assist the veteran. Ordinary costs of care (food and such) are not covered.

In my case, I was certified by orthopedics and psychiatry for a dog and then send to prosthetics. They denied my request because I was not service connected for my mobility issues. If I were in need of a wheelchair, crutches, surgery or any other equipment for a non-service connected issue I would be eligible because I am 100% service disabled. But, dogs are excluded equipment. It is like a medication or appliance that is not yet in their inventory due to cost or other reason.

The need for PTSD dogs to help tens of thousands of vets with combat and non-combat related related stress has spawned dozens of new service dog agencies. But, only a handful of them will be eligible for for VA programs for two reasons:

1. The VA will require that the agencies training dogs have Assistance Dog International accredited trainers or other agencies they designate. Most of the new programs do not have these trainers on board. “Veterans who are paired with a PTSD service dog often rave about how it improves their condition. Yet, there has been controversy  over the expertise and professionalism of organizations that have emerged to serve the demand…” The VA is the source of controversy and in past studies has levied some very unrealistic expectations on even ADI established agencies. I know firsthand as I was originally to be part of the VA study program started in Tampa, Florida.

2. The service dog must have been provided at no cost to the veteran. If the agency requires the veteran to raise any of the funds needed the dog is not eligible for the program. Cash strapped non-profits doing good work whether ADI certified or not will not benefit from the program.

With the number of vets returned and returning from war zones with PTSD estimated at nearly 30% of those who served it is a problem the VA needs to be addressing sooner than later. The current study by the VA is scheduled to conclude in four years. How many soldier will have taken their own life by that time. The generosity of the private sector and reputable groups like Freedom Service Dogs (who trained Gander) and Patriot Paws will have to rely on the kindness of their donors to further their live saving missions until the VA answers the growing call for alternatives and adjuncts to debilitating drug therapies.