Reporter's notebook: Sleep apnea is no disability

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

There have been a lot of headlines recently about the staggering number of military veterans receiving disability payments for sleep apnea. The news that the military considers sleep apnea a disability came as a surprise to CPAP providers.

“They look pretty darn healthy to me,” said Helen Kent, president of Progressive Medical in Carlsbad, Calif. “They’ve just got a problem sleeping.”

According to published reports, more than 100,000 veterans or military retirees are receiving disability payments for sleep apnea from Veterans Affairs to the tune of more than $1.2 billion a year. Veterans who are prescribed CPAP therapy for sleep apnea that occurs during service qualify for the payments.

“I am trying to figure out what conditions would cause war-related apnea,” said Glenn Steinke, owner of Airway Medical in Bishop, Calif. “Is it post traumatic stress disorder? I just don’t get it.”

The single biggest contributor to sleep apnea is still obesity—not a likely condition of those on active duty, say critics.

Even if the diagnosis of sleep apnea is valid—and nobody is saying it isn’t—proper treatment of the condition should negate any disability, say providers.

“It’s not a disability because it can be treated,” said Lisa Feierstein, founder of Raleigh, N.C.-based Active Healthcare. “There’s study after study that shows compliant CPAP patients also decrease their risk of co-morbidities.”  

Regardless of whether or not sleep apnea is a disability, it needs to be treated, says Steinke, whose son is currently a major in the U.S. Army. 

“That’s the bottom line,” he said.