Military Update: VA rule to expand disability pay for Vietnam exposure
Special to Stars and Stripes
About 86,000 Vietnam War veterans, their surviving spouses or estates will be eligible for retroactive disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs — an average of 11.4 years for veterans and 9.6 years for survivors — under a draft VA rule to expand by three the number of diseases presumed caused by herbicide exposure in the war.
The 86,000 are beneficiaries who can reopen previously denied claims for these conditions: ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and chronic B-cell blood cancers including hairy cell leukemia. But another 29,000 claims are expected to be approved this year for Vietnam veterans suffering from these diseases but applying for benefits for the first time.
The projected cost of this dramatic expansion of claims linked to Agent Orange and other defoliants deployed four decades ago is $13.6 billion this fiscal year and $42.2 billion over 10 years. VA plans to hire 1,772 new claims processors, starting this October, to be able to handle these claims "without significantly degrading the processing of the non-presumptive workload."
In the proposed rule published March 25 in the Federal Register, VA officials explained that Secretary Eric Shinseki has cut the usual 60-day public comment period by half "to promote rapid action" on these claims.
When a final rule is published, soon after April 26, VA claim offices across the country can begin making payments. Veterans with these diseases will need to show they set foot in Vietnam during the war. Those who served aboard ship just off the coast remain ineligible.
John Maki, assistant national service director for Disabled American Veterans, said DAV was glad to see the comment period cut to 30 days. Otherwise, the draft regulation contains no surprises. "It basically is going to take those three conditions and just add them to disabilities already listed as presumptive diseases for Agent Orange," Maki said.
Of 86,000 beneficiaries eligible for retroactive claims, VA estimates that nearly 70,000 of them are living Vietnam veterans, their average age now 63. Of those, 62,200 previously were denied compensation for IHD, 5,400 were denied for B-cell leukemia and 2,300 for Parkinson’s disease.
About 53,000 who previously filed claims for these diseases already are receiving VA compensation for other service-related diseases. Of those, roughly 8,350 are rated 100-percent disabled and therefore might not be eligible for retroactive pay.
VA assumes that veterans with Parkinson’s disease or for B-cell leukemia will be awarded 100 percent disability ratings. The average rating for ischemic heart diseases is expected to be 60 percent.
In calculating VA costs from this change, VA assumes that 80 percent of the eligible population will apply for benefits and 100 percent of those who do will be approved. But eligible vets and survivors must file claims to get paid; nothing will happen automatically. To file claims on line visit: http://vabenefits.vba.va.gov/vonapp/main.asp. Veterans without a computer can call a toll-free helpline at 1-800-749-8387.
VA maintains a directory of veterans’ service organizations with trained staff to help in filing claims online at www1.va.gov/vso/. Many state, county and local governments also have personnel to help. Find information on these agencies at:
VA also expects many ineligible veterans to file claims. They will be found ineligible because they can’t show they ever set foot in Vietnam though they suffer from one of the qualifying diseases. Many claims will be filed by veterans with hypertension but those will be rejected because that condition is not a "heart disease" under the VA draft regulation.
In total, VA expects claims volume from presumptive Agent Orange diseases to hit 159,000 this year and to exceed 270,000 by fiscal 2019.
Maki noted that entitlement to benefits only occurs with final publication of the regulation. Retroactive payments usually will be made back to the date a claim was filed for a presumptive disease.
"It is possible, since this is a liberalized law, that somebody may be able to get the retroactive date [moved back] to one year prior to the effective date in the regulation, if they can show they had the claimed condition prior to that year," Maki said.
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