- Associated Press - Monday, May 12, 2014

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - An Iraq war veteran has filed a complaint with the state and is asking federal lawmakers to investigate whether the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison is downgrading diagnoses to cut treatment costs.

Former U.S. Army Capt. Charles Gatlin said a Veterans Affairs psychologist conducting an examination to determine Gatlin’s service-related benefits found post-traumatic stress disorder was at the root of Gatlin’s cognitive problems, not a previous diagnosis of traumatic brain injury.

Gatlin and his wife, Ariana Del Negro, said the exam was short, didn’t involve any of the previous testing he’d had, and did not include information from those prior exams to determine the benefits he should receive, the Missoulian reported in a story published Monday (bit.ly/1mRmjlg).

The couple filed a grievance and also told a U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee panel last month they believe the VA is intentionally reducing benefits for disabled veterans.

“They’re arguing PTSD all the time. They’re arguing medical literature that’s not proven and finding the most convenient one and using it,” Gatlin said.

The VA Montana Health Care System denies the claims, saying it has providers who are highly trained in the complexities of traumatic brain injuries. Federal officials are asking the Montana Department of Labor's Hearings Bureau to dismiss Gatlin’s complaint, saying the state board lacks jurisdiction for actions against a federal worker.

Gatlin’s accusations are specific to the VA medical center outside Helena, but the entire Veterans Affairs medical system is under review.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has ordered an audit of access to care at all VA medical centers, and three executives of the veterans hospital in Phoenix have been placed on administrative leave amid an investigation into allegations of corruption and unnecessary deaths at the facility.

Gatlin was injured by an improvised explosive device in 2006 while on patrol near Kirkuk. He was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, and over the next three years testing by neuropsychologists found cognitive deficits such as impaired visual attention, fine motor skills and information processing.

The final test conducted in 2009 found the brain injury had stabilized but Gatlin’s problems would likely be permanent, and he was medically retired from the Army with a 70 percent disability rating. That benefit will be less after the new diagnosis, though the difference in the amount isn’t clear.

After his 2011 Fort Harrison exam, the VA psychologist reported Gatlin’s test scores were average and his diagnosis suggested PTSD was the problem. Any cognitive disorder “has apparently resolved,” the psychologist found.

The findings were confirmed by a doctor with the Defense Department’s Mental Health Services. Gatlin and his wife disputed the finding and filed the grievance.

“He’s a psychologist making neuropsychological observations,” Del Negro said of the VA doctor. “It’s as if the VA sends a patient with cancer to an eye doctor for assessment.”

In November, a screening panel with the Montana Board of Psychologists found reasonable evidence the psychologist caused Gatlin unreasonable risk of mental harm and financial loss by using the incorrect panel of tools to assess the residuals of his traumatic brain injury.

A hearing has been set for June.

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