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Review: "Veterans Say Trained Dogs Help with PTSD, But the VA Won't Pay" – NPR

This is a feel-good-meets-informational story by NPR's Lauren Silverman about the use of service animals.

Patriot PAWS is a nonprofit in Rockwall, Texas that provides service dogs. This particular company has been training dogs to help military veterans with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) and other mental health concerns.

The article states, "the Department of Veterans Affairs won't help pay for service dogs for PTSD, citing a lack of scientific evidence. But it's launching a study to find out what effect specially trained service dogs can have on the lives of veterans with PTSD."

Hooray! Sort of...

This is a classic example of how a government program is not as flexible as a private or individualized program. We in the health care field – and specifically mental health field – have known for years the benefits of service dogs and interactions with animals. Equine therapy has been proven very helpful for kids with autism and behavioral disorders. Yes, we may not have double-blind random controlled trials on the efficacy to veterans, but from our ability to extrapolate, it just makes empiric sense.

Even if the VA eventually pulls its head out of the sand and covers this expense, what's to happen to the veterans who need these services every day in the interim?

It's a complaint Patricia Dorn, director of the VA's Rehabilitation Research and Development Service in Washington, D.C. has heard repeatedly... "We understand, veterans are not happy with the agency in that we're not just providing this benefit," Dorn says. "But for an agency with [over] 150 hospitals and millions of veterans we serve, we need to have the evidence base to make a determination."

This is straight from the mouth of a high-ranking VA official. Since the VA is using public funds, those programs should rightfully be vetted, researched, and vetted again. I actually agree with that sentiment because I want public agencies to be good stewards of my tax dollars. But that's another argument for dissolving the VA and helping veterans get their health care from private sources: private sources are more efficient and flexible.

I've treated veterans before and would love to prescribe equine therapy or a service animal for some of them because I know it will help their mood, their self-esteem, and their feelings of loneliness. If a physician writes a prescription for a service dog, it should be covered – no questions asked. Unfortunately, in our current VA system, my recommendations have to go through a benefits coordinator who requires a request to a psychologist and on and on and on. Is the physician's recommendation worth anything anymore?

Underneath the P.S.Y.C.H. plan, veterans will have the ability to see a local provider and be prescribed what they need immediately. The federal government will subsidize the treatment plans immediately and give veterans the support and autonomy they've earned as members of the armed forces. The veteran can take that prescription – for medicine, therapy, etc. – to wherever they want and patronize the business of their choosing.

The article finishes with some concerns about the quality of service dogs, and how there were reports that "veterans sometimes get tricked into buying dogs that aren't properly trained." Here's the utility of a market economy. Those dogs and that company are less likely to get repeat customers if their quality is in question. So instead of letting a huge government entity micromanage a niche industry, let the American public do so. We're pretty good at it.


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