The Department of Veterans Affairs will no longer cover the cost of service dogs assigned to people with mental disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder,according to the Federal Register.
The VA laid out a long list of rules and regulations concerning veterans in need of service dogs on the website Wednesday. There is not enough evidence to support the medical need for the veterans suffering from PTSD, according to the new rules.
"Although we do not disagree with some commenters' subjective accounts that mental health service dogs have improved the quality of their lives, VA has not yet been able to determine that these dogs provide a medical benefit to veterans with mental illness," the VA said.
The new rule takes effect Oct. 5.
The VA will continue to provide service dogs for people with visual, hearing or mobility impairments. But the department said it will be up to the veterans to pay for the service dogs' needs if it is not "clinically prescribed by a veterinarian."
The funding loss comes as a blow to trainers and people who place veterans suffering from PTSD and other service-related injuries across the country.
Lindsey Stanek, the CEO of Paws and Stripes, a New Mexico-based nonprofit dedicated to providing service dogs for military veterans, said she finds the Federal Register's conclusions "preposterous," adding that the demand among veterans for service dogs far outweighs VA estimates.
"We have a waitlist that exceeds 600, and we're just one organization," Stanek said in reference to a Federal Registry estimate that "100 new service dogs would be provided to veterans each year."
"That could not be more inaccurate. This need is only going to get bigger and bigger, and it's going to take having this issue get out of hand.
"These disabilities affect the whole family. It's a bigger issue then being stamped and hurried along," she added. "If you can't see something wrong at first glance, it doesn't mean that it isn't there."
Stanek, 26, is not only CEO of Paws and Stripes, but is the wife of a veteran suffering from chronic PTSD. After suffering a brain injury while serving three tours in Iraq, her husband, James Stanek, returned with both mental and physical trauma.
Upon returning from his third tour, James, 32, began to suffer from migraines, blackouts and stress, which became debilitating, his wife said.
To help him adjust to life at home and the challenges of post-traumatic stress disorder, he was introduced to Sarge, a golden retriever-bulldog-Catahoula-mix service dog.
Sarge, 4, is trained to assist Stanek in many facets, including picking up objects, guiding him and providing balance. Lindsey Stanek said her husband is a fall-risk and has a problem with balance resulting from his brain injury. Sarge is able to help him with his balance, as well as help him in and out of chairs.
Sarge is also able to alert Stanek before the onset of a migraine, anxiety attack or a blackout.
"[Sarge] works as a biofeedback tool, so James can pay attention to himself, and so he can square himself away," Lindsey Stanek said.
After seeing what a service dog can provide for veterans on a personal level, the Staneks decided to dedicate themselves to other veterans suffering from physical and mental trauma, so in 2010 they opened Paws and Stripes in Rio Rancho, N.M.
Paws and Stripes uses a unique approach to match veterans who enroll in the program with pre-screened dogs at kill shelters. The veterans are allowed to choose their dogs, at which point both go through a vigorous six-month program with an assigned trainer who is customized to the vet's specific needs.
While Lindsey functions as the CEO, James works as a spokesman and focuses on community awareness for the organization, which relies on no government funding, but fundraising, private donations and grants. The nonprofit also has a director of education, who oversees training, a mental health office staffed by social workers and trainers who go through a full certification process.
"Quality control is important and that's what we strive for," Lindsey Stanek said.
The nonprofit only had one graduate in its first year. They graduate their 25th veteran this year, and will also see their largest graduating class yet.
Although the Department of Veteran Affairs' cutting funding is a setback for the cause, Linsdey Stanek says Paws and Stripes will continue their work as a veterans' advocate.
"We're going to keep moving forward, hoping that the VA will open its eyes to this issue," she said. "More will need them [dogs] than can get them before anyone pays attention to providing this need."