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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Veterans Health Administration Authorized to issue Service Dogs ... for years

Yes, folks, you read that title right.  The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has been authorized to assist Veterans with mobility and hearing dogs since 2002.  How many of us out there knew that?  Certainly not me.  In fact, I only recently found out that my dog, Rocco, can be declared a "prosthetic device".  If you're a faithful reader you've been following my battle to get him approved for benefits.  I'm still waiting for a response on that request and it's beyond the three weeks that is required by law for them to respond to me.  But my story is being told in another series of blogs.  Today I'm not talking about me.  This blog is for all of you out there who need service dogs.  Read on if you have been trying to get one without much success.

My good friend, Leo, and fellow moderator at Straight Talk provided me with the following information:
From VA's Inspector General's semiannual report to Congress on page 17 of 80
(4-1-2010 to 9-30-2010)
VHA Lacks Formal Guidance for Issuing Guide and Service Dogs

OIG evaluated VHA’s progress in providing guide and service dogs to qualified Veterans. While VHA has assisted visually impaired Veterans in obtaining guide dogs for several decades, VHA only began assisting mobility and hearing impaired Veterans with service dogs in 2008—6 years after originally being authorized. Since 2008, VHA’s authorization of service dogs has been limited to only eight Veterans. VAMCs lack sufficient guidance to ensure consistent decisions on Veterans’ requests for service dogs. Additionally, VHA is unsure of the actual demand for service dogs and is in the process of determining the appropriateness of using service dogs to assist Veterans with mental impairments. OIG recommended that VHA issue comprehensive interim guidance until VHA’s draft regulation addressing service dogs is finalized. The Under Secretary for Health agreed and stated that immediately after the draft regulation is published, VHA will issue a directive defining VHA’s policy on issuing service dogs.
Now if that doesn't make your blood boil, my friends, I don't know what will.  How can they look us in the eyes and say they are unsure of the demand for service dogs?  All they have to do is look around any VA Hospital.  I know that at my VA Hospital, on any given day, I see multiple service dogs wandering the hallways.  Look online and do some research.  Look at all the organizations dedicated to providing disabled Veterans with service dogs.  It's ridiculous to me that "6 years after originally being authorized" the VHA has authorized "only eight Veterans" requests for service dogs.  Who is making these decisions?  Where is the guidance for us to even apply?  And who are the eight Veterans?  Why did they make the cut?  Why are the rest of us fighting for every little crumb they throw our way when clearly we're authorized this benefit and have been for many years.  Why are Veterans paying out thousands upon thousands of dollars of their own money when clearly, the VHA is authorized to issue us service dogs?  In this economy when many of us are living on strictly our VA disability checks, and service dogs cost into the thousands of dollars, this is criminal.

This angers me on a number of levels.  I have a friend, a former Navy Seal, black ops kinda guy.  I don't know the places he's been, the things he's seen or the things that he's done.  I don't know what he witnessed during his military career and I'm sure I don't want to know.  He probably couldn't tell me if I asked him.  Most of those missions are classified.  I know that he has five Purple Hearts and he's service connected with  multiple disabilities to include PTSD and mobility issues. If anyone needs a service dog, it's my friend.  I hope the VHA gets their act together soon.  My friend has been let down again and again by trainers and schools promising to get him a dog, train it, equip it and send him the dog.  Then for whatever reason, they back out.  My friend is left without a dog. He's stuck at home, unable to leave the house, paralyzed by his PTSD.

For someone like my friend, who can't leave the house without assistance, this is a tremendous let down.  If the VHA was doing what they were supposed to be doing, it wouldn't be a problem.  Why isn't this man one of the 8?  How does he become one of the Veterans who is issued a service dog?  Therein lies the problem, my friends.  No one seems to know the answer to that question.  Go to your prosthetics office and they'll tell you they aren't authorized to issue service dogs.  Show them this quote from the VAOIG Report and they'll probably tell you you're out of your mind.  They'll argue with you much the same way they argued with me when I applied to have Rocco designated as my prosthetic device even though I had all the paperwork and evidence to support my request.  The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing and the VAOIG's report is proof of that.

Here is what I propose, my friends.  Are you a disabled Veteran in need of a service dog?  Go to your doctor and get a prescription for one.  Here is a letter/prescription that works and has stood the test of time in court cases.  It was provided to me by my Instructor, Ken at Service Dogs of Florida, Inc.
Here is the standard  prescription for an ESA or Service Dog... remove the part that doesn't apply.  This prescription has been used in nearly 200 court cases since 2004 and been well vetted as it covers all the bases.

/---  Sample note/script  from your doctor... 
They need to mention the laws, etc.

Sample Letter from a Service Provider
Name of Professional (therapist, physician, psychiatrist, rehabilitation counselor)
XXX Road
City, State Zip

To Whom it may concern:
[Full Name of Tenant] is my patient, and has been under my care since [date]. I am intimately familiar with his/her history and with the functional limitations imposed by his/her disability. He/She meets the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Due to [mental illness/hearing loss/reduced mobility], [first name] has certain limitations regarding [social interaction/coping with stress/anxiety, etc.]. In order to help alleviate these difficulties, and to enhance his/her ability to live independently and to fully use and enjoy the dwelling unit you own and/or administer, I am prescribing an [emotional support animal (Hud/FHa/ACAA)]         or       [service animal (ADA/Hud/FHa/ACAA)] that will assist [first name] in coping with his/her disability.

I am familiar with the voluminous professional literature concerning the therapeutic benefits of assistance animals for people with disabilities such as that experienced by [first name]. Upon request, I will share citations to relevant studies, and would be happy to answer other questions you may have concerning my recommendation that [Full Name of Tenant] have an emotional support OR
service animal. Should you have additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Name of Professional
Ask your doctor to submit that letter as part of a consult to the Prosthetics  Department at your VHA requesting that you be issued a service dog.  Right now, PSD's are not authorized.  This is in the works but for now, only hearing, guide and mobility dogs are authorized.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't request a PSD.  It's just that the chances of it being authorized right now aren't real good.  Still, there's hope for the future.  The point of doing this is to assist the VHA in finding out THE NEED for service dogs.  They claim they are "unsure of the actual demand for service dogs" so why don't we help them along?  The only way to do this is to put in requests for service dogs.  The higher the demand, the faster they will have to act.  Well, in theory at least.  That's the way I see it. I'd also attach a copy of the above paragraph from the VA's OIG Report.  You can read the entire report for yourself by clicking on the title of this blog or by clicking here.

What do you say, my friends?  Let's help the VHA do their research.  Let's step up and show them what "the actual demand for service dogs" really is.  Start applying to your local VHA for your service dogs.  Let's force them to do the jobs they are being paid for.  It's far time they started giving us the benefits we've earned.  Keep this in mind, my friends, you don't have to be service connected to apply for a service dog.  You only have to have a disability and a doctor's recommendation stating that a service dog is a medical necessity.  You must also be disabled according to ADA standards.

What are you waiting for?  Have you been on a waiting list somewhere?  Have you been saving up to purchase a dog?  Don't have the money to buy the equipment you need?  Don't have the money to pay a trainer?  Let the VHA take care of all that for you.  Let them know the demand is there.  Make an appointment with your primary care physician today.  Talk to him/her about a consult for a service dog.  Print out this blog and take it with you.  Email me or comment here if you need further information about service dogs.  I've done my homework and I'll be glad to share what I know with you.  Also, read the previous blogs I've written about service dogs.  They are loaded with information for those of you who already own them and need a little bit of help with them financially.

Until the next time .....

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