October 13, 2022

KARE 11 Investigates: Senators demand answers about veteran TBI denials

Lawmakers question whether the VA misdiagnosed traumatic brain injuries - and improperly denied benefits to Veterans - despite promised reforms.

Source: KARE NBC 11 Minneapolis


Members of Congress are demanding answers in the wake of a KARE 11 investigation exposing broken promises, unqualified doctors and inadequate medical testing by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Despite reforms promised in 2016, after KARE 11 first exposed that unqualified VA doctors were conducting examinations for traumatic brain injuries (TBI), U. S. Senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois are questioning whether the TBI misdiagnosis problem persists.

They recently wrote to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, saying their offices continue to be contacted by veterans about “inconsistencies with their TBI diagnoses,” “only receiving brief screening tools without undergoing significant diagnostic tests,” and having to “seek care outside the VA.”

Their letter comes in the wake of a new KARE 11 investigation exposing how a local veteran originally denied TBI treatment and benefits in 2012 by an unqualified doctor was wrongly denied again in 2021.

A Marine’s story

Records show Marine veteran Brandon Winneshiek survived multiple IED blasts while serving in Ramadi, Iraq – including one that hit the building his observation post was in.

“I’ll never forget what happened,” he said as he described the blast. “I had been thrown across the room.”

Winneshiek was repeatedly told by VA hospitals in Minneapolis and Tomah, Wisconsin that he didn’t have a traumatic brain injury – despite his combat history and symptoms screaming otherwise.

“I was struggling to not kill myself,” he said.

Winneshiek was part of a nationwide scandal KARE 11 exposed in 2015, documenting how the VA had been using doctors who – by the VA’s own rules – were unqualified to diagnose TBIs.

“Equitable Relief”

In 2016, the VA acknowledged the problem and notified nearly 25,000 veterans nationwide that they were entitled to new TBI examinations.

Officials also promised what they called “Equitable Relief” – including paying retroactive TBI benefits to veterans who had been misdiagnosed. They announced those benefits would be calculated based on the original date the Veterans had applied, even if it was years earlier.

When Winneshiek finally got to see a qualified neurologist at the Tomah VA, he says the exam lasted just half an hour. Medical records show he was given just a brief screening test typically used to spot dementia.

Medical experts like neuropsychiatrist Justin Otis told KARE 11 that those screening exams are entirely inadequate to diagnose TBI.

“It’s not meant to be a diagnostic tool,” Otis said. “It’s not sensitive or specific for traumatic brain injury.”

Sophisticated testing

After being denied TBI care by the VA, Winneshiek continued to have worsening symptoms, including relentless thoughts of suicide, sudden mood changes and unexplained physical symptoms such as dizziness.

“There’s been days where I put my dress blues on – my uniform – and I’ve had a gun in my mouth and came so close to pulling the trigger,” he said.

So, in 2021 he decided to pay out of pocket at a private hospital for sophisticated testing.

The new testing revealed he’d had multiple TBIs – leaving him with permanent deficits.

“I needed that high-quality examination that the VA promised to give me and never did,” he said.

Armed with the private TBI diagnosis, the Marine combat veteran filed a new claim for TBI benefits with the VA.

Faced with an official diagnosis after extensive testing by outside experts, the VA finally acknowledged that Winneshiek does have a TBI – and is entitled to benefits going forward.

Back benefits denied

Despite the 2016 promise to pay retroactive benefits, however, the VA is refusing to approve his claim for equitable relief – benefits that would have been backdated to when he first submitted his TBI claim in 2011.


They say veterans covered by the 2016 “Equitable Relief” announcement only had one year to apply. They say Winneshiek screwed up because he didn’t apply quickly enough for benefits for the injury the VA itself told him he did not have.

Because he waited until 2021 to go outside the VA system to get an accurate TBI diagnosis, the VA says he doesn’t qualify for the retroactive benefits.

“The VA kicked me to the curb!” Winneshiek said.

In their letter, Senators Baldwin and Duckworth asked the VA to detail the steps it has taken to ensure veterans are getting “adequate TBI examinations” and to reveal how many other veterans have been denied back benefits because they missed the one-year deadline.

VA Secretary McDonough has yet to respond to the senators.

By:  A.J. Lagoe and Steve Eckert