Why won’t the VA provide service dogs for wounded warriors?

Maybe someone failed to hire a lobbyist.

NEADS Inc. is a non-profit that trains service dogs. One of its current programs is called Canines for Combat Veterans. The dogs can perform amazing feats, including untying someone’s shoelaces and pulling off his shoes. They can also help people walk by pulling them forward.

NEADS has even figured out a way to have prison inmates train the dogs. Both the psychological benefits and the after-release employment opportunities are easy to imagine, though the program is too young to have been formally evaluated.

Naturally, NEADS proposed that the Department of Veterans Affairs consider providing the animals to veterans who need them. However, NEADS neglected the key step: they failed to hire a lobbyist with good Republican connections. I’m sure Rick Davis could have done the job.

Instead, the organization relied on facts, which have a well-known liberal bias, and got turned down cold based on a steaming pile of pseudo-scientific crap.

My friend Lowry Heussler, who uses a service dog to compensate for a bad hip, is on the board of NEADS. She produced one of the best f.u. letters it has ever been my privilege to read; full text is below. If any actual journalist wants to report the story, I can make the contact. In addition to a devastating literary style, Lowry has the sort of hyperactive New England conscience that guarantees that every semicolon of what she says is precisely accurate.


April 9, 2008

Michael J. Kussman, M.D.

James B. Peake, M.D.

Department of Veterans Affairs.

Washington, DC 20024

Dear Drs. Kussman and Peake:

I have a copy of Dr. Kussman’s memo (December 11, 2007) outlining the basis for his recommendations opposing VA funding for service dogs. Dr. Peake approved the memo on January 14, 2008.

I urge you both to reconsider your position. Although I have a wealth of data, both research-based and experiential, to refute each and every one of your findings, (paragraph 3) and will not include all of them here. The most important points are these:

Your conclusion at ¶3 (a) comes dangerously close to scientific misrepresentation. I have been informed that the study referred to was done by Dr. Rintala from Baylor Medical College. It is not true that Dr. Rintala’s work failed to substantiate effectiveness of service dogs; her sample was too small to support a general claim. I am troubled that two physicians of your caliber would misuse scientific research to support a political position.

The assertion that cost savings of service dogs are offset by the cost of maintaining the dog is just plain silly. In the field of logic, we call that a truism. One might as well observe that the benefits of having health insurance are offset by the cost of an employee’s contribution to the plan. Honesty should have compelled you to include the economic data: A part-time PCA (personal care assistant) costs $20,000 annually. A service dog? $1,200.

Your conclusion at ¶3 (c) is simply incorrect. Putting aside the entire question of whether a “reacher” device is more effective than a service dog, there is no device that substitutes for a walker dog. I have used canes, crutches and walkers. None of them provide me with my dog’s gentle forward traction that enables me to sail down the streets of Boston, untroubled by ice and snow, up hills and stairs, as I make my way to the courthouses where I do my job.

Paragraph 3 (d) is another truism. Yes, the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will need as many as four dogs over their lifetimes. We are willing to provide them. Those of us who volunteer our time and donate private funds to service dog organizations have stepped up to meet the challenge. What am I to conclude from the fact that my government, having sent young men and women to war, now uses misstatements of fact, including scientific fact, to justify a refusal to care for the wounded?

Paragraph 3 (e) is both factually incorrect (service dogs do not need constant retraining) and, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, patently offensive to the disabled. I am offended by the suggestion that disabled people are “too disabled” to effectively use service dogs. Let us leave this unfortunate paragraph without further comment.

It is hardly a surprise that you find, in ¶3 (f), an absence of consistent standards for assessing the usefulness of a service dog for an individual. You probably ignored the material available from Assistance Dog International and looked at the major insurance companies and the VA system. Until this war resulted in a skyrocketing increase in the young disabled population, service dog organizations did their work without any third-party insurance reimbursement or government involvement. Standards weren’t needed. So long as the VA turns its back on the needs of its veterans, the VA will never develop its own clinical standards.

I wish to leave you with a consideration that may have not been apparent when you were creating this policy. So long as the VA refuses to provide economic support that would enable reputable service dog charities to increase their production of trained dogs, a shadow industry in fake service dogs will flourish. There are already hundreds of sleazy people promising to provide service dogs for a fee. Most of these fly-by-night companies simply take money from the disabled person in return for a promise that the staff will provide training for the person’s own dog. The disabled person ends up with an untrained pet, an identification card “certifying” that the pet is a service dog within the meaning of the ADA, and some training materials. Our veterans deserve better.

I have criticized the evidentiary basis for your conclusions, so let me end on a more positive note with a suggestion for improving your data. On behalf of NEADS, Inc. and the Canines for Combat Veterans program, I extend an invitation to each of you to visit our campus in Massachusetts. We have a wealth of information to share with you, and it could better inform your policies.

Very truly yours,

Lowry Heussler

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com