Context Most studies examining the clinical impact of disability benefits have compared aid recipients with people who never applied for benefits. Such practices may bias findings against recipients because disability applicants tend to be much sicker than never-applicants. Furthermore, these studies ignore the outcomes of denied claimants.
Objective To examine long-term outcomes associated with receiving or not receiving Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability benefits for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the most common mental disorder for which veterans seek such benefits.
Design Comparison of outcomes between successful and unsuccessful applicants for VA disability payments. Because we could not randomize the receipt of benefits, we used exact matching by propensity scores to control for potential baseline differences. We examined clinical outcomes approximately 10 years later.
Setting and Participants Stratified, nationally representative cohort of 3337 veterans who applied for VA PTSD disability benefits between January 1, 1994, and December 31, 1998.
Main Outcome Measures Assessment on validated survey measures of PTSD; work, role, social, and physical functioning; employment; and poverty. We compared outcomes with earlier scores. Homelessness and mortality were assessed using administrative data.
Results Of still-living cohort members, 85.1% returned usable surveys. Symptoms of PTSD were elevated in both groups. After adjustment, awardees had more severe PTSD symptoms than denied claimants but were nonetheless more likely to have had a meaningful symptom reduction since their last assessment (−6.1 vs−4.4; SE, 0.1; P = .01). Both groups had meaningful improvements of similar magnitude in work, role, and social functioning (−0.15 vs−0.19; SE, 0.01; P = .94), but functioning remained poor nonetheless. Comparing awardees with denied claimants after adjustment, 13.2% vs 19.0% were employed (P = .11); 15.2% vs 44.8% reported poverty (P < .001); 12.0% vs 20.0% had been homeless (P = .02); and 10.4% vs 9.7% had died (P = .66).
Conclusions Regardless of claim outcome, veterans who apply for PTSD disability benefits are highly impaired. However, receiving PTSD benefits was associated with clinically meaningful reductions in PTSD symptoms and less poverty and homelessness.