“Coding Error”: Veterans Wrongly Told They Have ALS

More than 1,800 Gulf War veterans were sent a letter dated Aug. 12 notifying them of their disability benefits for Lou Gehrig’s disease. Many of the recipients had no idea they were diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease. Come to find out, about 1,200 of the letters were sent in error.

Denise Nichols, vice president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, says the Veterans Affairs Department (VA), who sent the letters, is blaming a coding error for the mistake (MSNBC.com).

“VA is immediately reviewing the individual claims files for all the recipients of this letter to identify those who received the notification in error,” the VA said in a Aug. 24 statement.

Lou Gerhig’s disease, or ALS, is a “progressive degeneration of the neurons that give rise to the corticospinal tract and of the motor cells of the brain stem and spinal cord, resulting in a deficit of upper and lower motor neurons,” and identified by ICD-9-CM diagnosis code 335.20 Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Symptoms of ALS , according to the ALS Association, include:

  • Muscle weakness in one or more of the following: hands, arms, legs or the muscles of speech, swallowing or breathing
  • Twitching (fasciculation) and cramping of muscles, especially those in the hands and feet
  • Impairment of the use of the arms and legs
  • “Thick speech” and difficulty in projecting the voice
  • In more advanced stages, shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing and swallowing

A small number of veterans who hadn’t experienced these symptoms questioned the letter’s validity and sought a second opinion, which required a battery of expensive tests. The Gulf War Veterans Group is now requesting the VA to reimburse any veteran who scheduled additional tests with civilian doctors (FoxNews.com).

The federal government announced almost a year ago that it will provide disability pay, lifetime health care and death benefits for all veterans with ALS. The government expected approximately 400 new cases among vets this year, and a total of about 700 cases a year qualifying for benefits, according to The New York Times (Grady, 2008).


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