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VA sees sharp rise in apnea cases

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WASHINGTON — The number of veterans receiving disability benefits for a sleeping disorder has increased 61 percent in the past two years and now costs taxpayers more than $500 million per year, according to VA data released to USA TODAY.
More than 63,000 veterans receive benefits for sleep apnea, a disorder that causes a sleeping person to gasp for breath and awaken frequently. It is linked to problems ranging from daytime drowsiness to heart disease. The top risk factor for contracting the disorder appears to be obesity, though a sleep expert at VA and a veteran's advocacy organization cite troops' exposure to dust and smoke in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq as contributing factors.
More claims are likely to be made in the future as baby boomers age and get heavier, says Max Hirshkowitz, director of the Sleep Disorder Center at the Houston Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Veterans are four times more likely than other Americans to suffer from sleep apnea, Hirshkowitz said. About 5 percent of Americans have the disorder, he said, compared with 20 percent of veterans.
Veterans benefits for sleep apnea are more generous than those for workers in the private sector, records show. For example, Elaine Fischer – a spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, which handles workers' compensation in that state – said the department is not aware of any occupational exposure that would cause sleep apnea. "We're unaware of it being directly caused by something work-related," she said.
In 2007, Congress asked VA to pay closer attention to sleep apnea among veterans. Greater awareness of the disorder has prompted more veterans to seek treatment, Hirshkowitz said. The result has been a sharp increase in claims and disability payments to veterans, according to data provided to USA TODAY by VA:
•The number of veterans claiming sleep apnea as a disability has jumped to 63,118 in 2010 from 39,145 in 2008, a 61 percent increase.
•Payments to apnea patients with a disability rating of 50 — by far the largest group receiving benefits — rose to a minimum of $534 million in 2010 from $306 million in 2008. The minimum payment for a disability with a rating of 50 is $9,240 a year, but increases if a veteran is married and has children.
The Social Security Administration recognizes sleep apnea as a disability. It pays benefits to those who can't work because of a disability that is likely to last at least one year or that will kill them. VA says veterans, however, can receive benefits and hold jobs.
Some veterans may be predisposed to sleep apnea, Hirshkowitz said, because many are built like football players. They're big men, and as they age many "become sedentary" and gain "an enormous amount of weight," he said. "When you get to middle age or late middle age your level of exercise does not maintain, particularly when you have knee problems and hip problems."
Daniel Chapman, a psychiatric epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed: "I really can't think of a reason other than what's happening in the general population, which is that we're growing increasingly obese."
Chapman and Hirshkowitz said some sleep apnea cases may be caused by exposure to toxins from smoke or fires.
Along with increased screening, the rise in sleep apnea cases may also be due to exposure to dust, sand and grit in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Thom Wilborn, a spokesman for the Disabled American Veterans organization.
"Give a guy a rifle and put him in a desert, and he's going to suffer some respiratory issues," Wilborn said.
Losing weight can help some people with sleep apnea, Hirshkowitz said, though he notes that some thin men and some women also have the disorder.
Veterans with a disability rating of 50 require breathing assistance with the airway pressure device, VA said. The breathing machines work well, Hirshkowitz said, and can prevent veterans from developing more serious heart and lung problems.

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June 4, 2014 - 10:19pm

I've heard a lot of people express disgust that sleep apnea is the new "scam". I am a military wife and mom x 2, as well as a sleep medicine practitioner. Most of the young service members I see are not obese, many do not even snore. There are several kinds of sleep disordered breathing that fall under "sleep apnea" including hypoventilation (shallow ineffective breaths) and Central Sleep Apnea (absence of respiratory effort). Both of these are silent, atypical types. You often don't diagnose them in service, but after they retire and are found to have accelerated coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, chronic kidney dysfunction, etc. Its a silent killer. If you have high blood pressure at a young age with no good reason, get a sleep study. Many think "high blood pressure or heart disease" run in their families and VA dismisses their claim because it was most likely "family history" that was the major factor. Bologna! Many times its the underlying sleep apnea that caused family members to exhibit these other disorders.

Marcia Mezeski

June 4, 2014 - 4:34am

I too have sleep Apnea and was put on Nightime Oxygen.I was diagnosed about 5yrs. ago. They give me an ocasional test about once a yr. or two.

William McDonnell, VSO

June 5, 2014 - 10:11am

You should contact me so that I can help you file a claim for sleep apnea. I am a Veterans Service Officer.


September 17, 2014 - 12:47pm


douglas schroeder

June 20, 2014 - 2:57pm

I have sleep apnea.I would go to bed and wake up in middle of night not breathing. I made an appointment at the sleep center. I quit breating up to 60 times per hour. The doctor put me on a cpape machine. I dread trying to sleep when the power goes off.

John Poindexter

June 3, 2014 - 8:48pm

I was told I had sleep apnea in 2007 and issue a CPAP be the VA, but I was never given any disability for it. When I recently asked why, a nurse at he VA clinic said it is not their job to assess disability. So, I guess I just keep getting screwed by the VA and not sleep good either.

Richard Highton

September 25, 2014 - 2:23pm

I was told by a VA rep that my sleep apnea would not be approved if I was not treated for this prior to my retirement.I have apnea for almost 30 years.

William J. McDonnell, VSO

June 5, 2014 - 10:13am

It is not too late for your to file a claim. You just need to know the proper procedure and VA regs. Contact me I can assist you. I am a Veterans Service Officer.

Richard Cartee

July 22, 2014 - 4:17pm

I was diagnosed about 6 or 7 + - years ago for sleep apnea. I'm a Vietnam Vet and also have severe PTSD which I heard can also be a factor for sleep apnea. Any truth to that? I'm 100 % but wondered if I could get supplemental income for this .Hardly get any good sleep.

Christopher Paul Thompson

June 5, 2014 - 3:25pm

I have had sleep apnea and have had to live with a CPAP machine for years. I am a 15 year veteran. Could you please help me apply for disability?


June 5, 2014 - 12:41pm

I have sleep apnea and I have a cpape machine Please help me!


June 5, 2014 - 11:46am

I have sleep apnea and I have a cpape machine Please help me!

Navy Davey

June 4, 2014 - 3:43pm

Request a sleep study from your VA doc asap.Then contact the DAV and submit your paperwork for a claim.

Steve Scanlon

June 3, 2014 - 4:32pm

When I left Active Duty in 1997, I entered the fact that I had sleep apnea on my REFRAD physical exam. However, the Army never checked it out. Once I was in civilian life, I saw a doctor in private practice who ordered a sleep study. And, based on the results of the study he prescribed CPAP treatment. I eventually applied to the VA for compensation. Even though VA clinicians had told me that I had several conditions that were compensable, I was unaware that the VA process was adversarial. Who ever evaluated my application recommended a disability determination of 10%. Since I didn't realize that this was just the token amount they try to shut you up with, I never appealed the determination. I thought that they must have evaluated my condition and assigned the appropriate rating under their system. I didn't learn the truth until many years later. I have relied on a CPAP machine for years just to stay alive. But, I thought I no longer had any recourse since the brief appeal deadline set by the VA passed long ago. How are all these people receiving 50% determinations now?

William J. McDonnell, VSO

June 5, 2014 - 10:14am

You obviously did not receive the proper guidance when you were leaving active duty. It is not too late to file a claim for sleep apnea. Contact me. I can assist you. I am a Veterans Service Officer.

Michael Howell

October 5, 2014 - 5:21pm

Hello, I have sleep apnea. And I need to speak to you about filing a claim

Michael Howell

October 5, 2014 - 5:23pm

Call me at 336 456 8357.


June 3, 2014 - 1:17pm

Here's why the increase in the number of SA cases are being presented in the last couple of years ... the VA has let be know that this condition (SA)is almost an automatic 50% disability rating compensation if it is determined service connected, so now you have all these active duty guys who are getting within two years of retirement or separation and they start complaining to the healthcare system about sleep deprivation and such which eventually promps a sleep study to get it documented in their medical records so there's proof for the VA when the VA finally does the mbrs disability rating physical. Now, I don't blame active duty mbrs for doing such if the condition is real and they work in high stressed jobs but I would think that the VA in order to ensure its not a sham needs to put a minimum number of years of serving with the condition in order spur a disability rating of 50%. Right now most services are automatically referring members to medical boards once the condition is diagnosed but because medical boards take so long to act it could be upto 2 years before a decision to medically separate or retire a member is made which is why members are waiting until they've reached retirement eligibility or within two years of their separation date to present the complaint to the military healthcare system.

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