Advocates push changes in VA service dog policy

By Rick Maze, Army Times Staff writer

An inconsistent policy that can sometimes bar a veteran from entering a Veterans Affairs Department hospital or clinic accompanied by a service dog - even one approved by VA - has prompted a Florida lawmaker to demand a change in regulations.

The problem, according to Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla., is that current law and policy prohibits animals other than guide dogs for the blind from entering VA facilities without written permission. Rules require exceptions to be approved on a case-by-case basis, and some medical centers and clinics have been reluctant to provide permission.

In a Wednesday letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Klein said VA's restrictions seem especially outdated because the Americans with Disabilities Act - which does not apply to VA - requires civilian hospitals and clinics to allow guide dogs and other service animals to accompany disabled people if the animals are specially trained.

Service dogs are different than guide dogs for the blind or deaf. Instead of hearing or seeing, service dogs are trained to help with mobility, to help pick up or set down objects, to provide warnings for some medical conditions such as seizures and to do daily chores. They also can be trained to get help in an emergency.

"I believe that this regulation is outdated and does not reflect the needs of veterans with service dogs," Klein said in the letter. "It would be shameful if veterans with service dogs could access any public building in the United States except for VA."

Christina Roof, national deputy legislative director for the veterans group AmVets, said she knows of a paralyzed veteran who was prohibited in March from bringing a service dog into Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga., although he had been allowed to bring the dog into other VA facilities. After Klein interceded, the Augusta hospital has rescheduled an appointment for September where the dog will be allowed to enter, Roof said.

Roof, who has helped 11 veterans receive partial reimbursement for service dogs in the last month, agreed that the policy is outdated, especially in an era when VA approves of having dogs help severely disabled veterans and even pays for part of the costs.

"VA needs to not just implement new laws but to make sure old laws remain up to date," Roof said. "Everyone needs to understand that it creates problems and hurdles for veterans seeking care when policies vary from facility to facility. There should be one policy, it should apply everywhere and it should allow service dogs to accompany disabled veterans."

Roof and Klein suggest that a simple change in regulations would fix the problem by issuing new rules that treat service dogs the same as guide dogs.