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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist whose evaluation downgraded the disabling effects of a veteran's brain injury has been publicly reprimanded by the Montana Board of Psychologists for practicing outside the scope of his expertise.
The board's Sept. 4 ruling, first reported by the Great Falls Tribune, also prohibits Dr. Robert Bateen from performing neuropsychological evaluations without additional training. Bateen said he had been doing such work under VA policies.
Capt. Charles Gatlin suffered a traumatic brain injury in September 2006 when a car bomb went off near him in Iraq. He underwent three comprehensive neuropsychological exams.
In the final one, in August 2009, a neuropsychologist determined Gatlin's cognitive and motor deficits were likely stable and he was retired from the Army with a 70 percent disability rating, which was used to determine his benefits.
Two years later, after Gatlin moved to Montana, his application for VA benefits required he be evaluated at the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison. Bateen's evaluation determined that Gatlin's cognitive test scores were in the average range — the board found they were not — and any cognitive dysfunction was mild and suggested a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The evaluation resulted in a 10 percent disability rating.
Gatlin and his wife, Ariania Del Negro, challenged the decision through the Board of Veterans' Appeals, arguing that Bateen used improper testing, did not evaluate all potential cognitive deficits, did not give weight to the earlier, more thorough test results, and offered opinions in an area of psychology for which he was not qualified.
The veteran's agency rejected all appeals along with a request for a referral to a neuropsychologist.
Del Negro said they took the case to the state licensing board, which initially agreed with their arguments in November 2013.
Bateen responded that he was following VA policy, and a federal attorney initially argued that the licensing board didn't have jurisdiction to pursue claims for actions taken by Bateen as a federal employee.
However, the Board of Psychologists rejected the jurisdictional argument, and Bateen decided not to pursue the case due to personal and health reasons, a Department of Justice attorney has said.
The decision said Bateen is not absolved from having to meet a standard of care required under his state license by saying he was following VA policy.
That, Del Negro said, opens the door to more appeals.
"When people are frustrated with the absence of VA accountability, we believe we have created a pathway whereby the employees of the VA can be held accountable for grievous acts," Del Negro said. "And it can be duplicated in other states."
A VA spokeswoman, Genevieve Billia, did not return a phone call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The state board's decision noted that Bateen maintained an otherwise clear record throughout his career.
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