Has the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) denied your benefits claim based on a diagnosis of sleep apnea? Even with the extensive medical research and statistically significant correlations between sleep apnea and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), weight gain, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, it can be difficult to get VA approval for sleep apnea claims.
The VA repeatedly denies these claims without fully considering the medical significance of sleep apnea and its physical effects on the body. As many as 38% of all claims are denied in error, due in part to a weak initial application that lacks medical evidence or doesn’t clearly demonstrate service connection.
The good news is many sleep apnea-based denials have a strong chance of successful appeal. Demonstrate the medical significance, justify your service connection and you can win your sleep apnea VA benefits claim.
Veteran Service-Connected Sleep Apnea Claims on the Rise
An increasing number of sleep apnea claims are cropping up among younger veterans. Since 2009, veterans’ claims for sleep apnea have increased 150%, more than 94% of these coming from veterans of Gulf War I or the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Benefits Report, sleep apnea has become the most common service-connected respiratory disability and makes up more than 22% of all body system disabilities.
There is an alarming correlation between individuals with PTSD and sleep apnea. Studies by the VA San Diego Healthcare System and the National Center for PTSD show that over 69% of veterans with PTSD are at high risk for sleep apnea and the risk of sleep apnea increases with PTSD symptom severity.
Demonstrating Sleep Apnea Related Health Conditions Is Crucial
As a veterans’ disability lawyer, veterans often ask me how they should go about winning a claim for sleep apnea secondary to PTSD. Success in winning these claims comes from understanding the medical evidence that associates sleep apnea with other health problems. Veterans who are aware of the physical connections between their disabilities are better equipped to make additional claims for service connection, claims they may not have considered otherwise.
1. Sleep Apnea Increases Risk For Type 2 Diabetes
Most veterans link PTSD and sleep apnea in that PTSD can lead to weight gain and sleep apnea is associated with obesity. But rapidly accumulating data suggests sleep apnea is also associated with alterations in glucose metabolism, increasing the risk for type 2 diabetes. Research shows that 83% of type 2 diabetes patients suffer from sleep apnea. As the severity of sleep apnea increases, glucose regulation in the body weakens. Patients with sleep apnea experience reduced sleep duration and intermittent periods of hypoxia – a lack of oxygen to the brain. Both sleep deprivation and hypoxia exert a detrimental effect on glucose metabolism.
Medical literature recommends doctors evaluate sleep apnea patients for the presence of type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes can go undiagnosed for several years, but a sleep apnea diagnosis can lead to early detection due to the recommendation for regular testing. If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea and are also gaining weight, ask to be examined for the presence of type 2 diabetes. You may then file a claim for type 2 diabetes as secondary to the sleep apnea.
2. Sleep Apnea Is Associated With Cardiovascular Disease
A typical scenario we see in our veterans’ disability law firm is a veteran who starts gaining weight during service. The veteran is placed in the weight reduction program and may show evidence of elevated cholesterol and/or elevated blood pressure readings. After he leaves service, the weight continues to increase, the BMI reaches the obesity range, and the veteran is diagnosed with sleep apnea. At this point, he often develops type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. He must be able to get treatment to reduce the risk of more serious, potentially fatal complications.
If this veteran files a claim for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, the VA will likely deny it saying there is no evidence the conditions existed during service. While that may be true, the VA has taken a narrow and simplistic view of these issues – and you can argue this view. A veteran’s health is complex and multifaceted. One body system cannot be altered without affecting another. If a veteran begins gaining weight during service, the entire spectrum of obesity-related problems are open for service connection.
3. Physical Injury during Service Can Lead To Sleep Apnea
Consider a veteran who suffers a physical injury during service and is eventually service connected for an orthopedic problem involving his knees. This injury prevents him from engaging in strenuous physical activity, leading to inevitable weight gain. The weight gain leads to the development of sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes and eventually heart disease.
The VA typically denies these claims, reasoning that none of the conditions had their onset during service and obesity is not a disability for VA purposes. Although that is generally true, this particular claim can demonstrate that the physical injury during service caused weight gain, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease.
In order to win an appeal for sleep apnea, veterans must use the relevant medical literature and scientific research to demonstrate the existence of in-service risk factors. All relevant conditions must then become the subject of the VA claim. An experienced veterans’ disability lawyer with access to medical experts and investigative resources can help you prepare your claim.
Our veterans’ disability law firm has an extensive network of medical experts willing to stand up against VA doctors and justify your claim. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with sleep apnea, call today to learn how our experienced veterans’ disability attorneys can help. 888.878.9350