Minneapolis – The Montana Governor’s Traumatic Brain Injury Advisory Council recently issued a scathing letter accusing the VA of intentionally gathering “evidence which excludes consequences of medical conditions requiring health care.”
The task force’s findings come in the wake of a KARE 11 investigation which exposed flaws in the way the VA was testing for deficits in veterans with brain injuries.
KARE 11’s report profiled the case of retired Army Captain Charles Gatlin.
Gatlin was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after being wounded by a car bomb blast Kirkuk, Iraq in 2006. Over a period of several years, the Department of Defense did multiple neuropsychological tests that showed his cognitive deficits caused by the blast were likely “stable and permanent.”
His injuries were so serious, Gatlin says he was forced to retire from the Army with a 70% disability rating because of the TBI.
“I had no choice,” he told KARE 11.
But the Army’s finding of a “permanent” injury apparently wasn’t enough for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In order to qualify for veterans benefits, Gatlin was told to report to the VA facility at Fort Harrison, Montana for a re-evaluation.
“And that’s where the problems started,” Gatlin said.
Records show that Dr. Robert Bateen, a VA staff psychologist, apparently ignored the Army’s more thorough tests and used a brief screening tool called an RBANS to evaluate Captain Gatlin.
“I saw this man for 20 minutes,” Gatlin recalls. “And a decision was made.”
Based on that short RBANS test, Dr. Bateen concluded that Gatlin’s so-called “permanent” condition had seemingly vanished. He wrote, “If Mr. Gatlin had a cognitive impairment in the past, it is likely that this has resolved.”
Gatlin appealed to the Montana Board of Psychology, the state medical board that licenses psychologists.
After reviewing the case, the state Board of Psychologists agreed with Gatlin.
“Our board thought the process used by Dr. Bateen was deficient,” said Board Chairman Dr. George Watson.
The state board wrote: “The RBANS is not an appropriate tool for determining the effects of mild TBI.”
“It was not sensitive enough to do what the VA purported that it was supposed to do,” Dr. Watson told KARE 11. “So we reprimanded the psychologist.”
In spite of that finding, the VA has refused to abide by the Montana Board of Psychologists ruling. It says state rules don’t apply to federal facilities.
In a letter to Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) the VA’s Undersecretary for Health wrote, “The RBANS test is widely used and was an appropriate test for Dr. Bateen to utilize.”
After reviewing the case, the Montana Governor’s Traumatic Brain Injury Advisory Council is now also condemning the VA’s procedures.
They write in their letter to the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, “It appears to the Council that the VA is deliberately adopting a lower standard of care for veterans than that which is accepted for civilians. This accepted standard of care is not always achieved in civilian health care either, but it is remarkable to see it explicitly rejected by the VA.”
Capt. Gatlin recently won his appeal within the VA system and had his benefits fully reinstated, but it took a three year fight.
“They didn’t want to hear it they didn’t want to hear it at all,” Gatlin told KARE 11. “You got to hold them accountable.”