Families of veterans who die from coronavirus would have survivor benefits protected under House bill
By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 5, 2020
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WASHINGTON — A House bill introduced Thursday would ensure that any veteran who dies from coronavirus in the care of the Department of Veterans Affairs would have service-connected disabilities noted in the cause of death to protect survivor benefits.
If an autopsy of a veteran now states the cause of death is coronavirus instead of a service-connected disability, it has the potential to jeopardize survivor benefits, which are typically awarded to families of veterans who died from an injury or illness related to their military service.
The Ensuring Survivors Benefits during COVID-19 Act, introduced by Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, would require VA to account for service-related disabilities that might have exacerbated the virus and contributed to the death of a veteran.
“Presently, the cause of death rulings threatens benefits veterans have earned,” Davidson, a former Army infantry officer, said in a statement. “Congress must act to ensure that the VA accurately deals with the cause of death while accounting for service-related injuries in order to properly care for all surviving family members.”
Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange could contract multiple dangerous health complications, including several types of cancer, diabetes, respiratory issues, and a weakened immune system, according to VA. Any of those health problems could put those patients in a much higher risk pool if they are infected with the coronavirus.
“Veterans with long-term medical challenges shouldn’t have to worry that contracting [the coronavirus] will endanger the benefits they earned while serving our country,” Davidson said.
The VA has admitted 62,757 veterans infected with the coronavirus to department facilities, and 3,469 have died, according to the latest data from the department.
But it is not just the Vietnam veterans at risk. Veteran advocates and lawmakers have raised the alarm of the estimated 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans exposed to burn pits overseas.
Veterans contracting cancers, respiratory issues and lung diseases at young ages largely have blamed exposure to toxic fumes for the illnesses. All of those health issues would make someone more susceptible to the worst impacts of coronavirus, including death, according to the World Health Organization.
In April, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D, wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie urging his agency to be more proactive with caring for younger veterans with respiratory issues which might have come from exposure to toxic fumes from burning garbage, paint, jet fuel and human waste.
"The VA estimates that over 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits, and over 200,000 veterans and service members have signed up for the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry to date," the senators wrote. "Given the significant number of at-risk veterans, it is critical that the VA prioritizes efforts to ensure that these brave men and women are able to safely receive care during the current public health crisis."
However, the VA has contended there is not sufficient evidence to support claims that can get seriously ill from long-term exposure to burning waste. The department has denied about 78% of the 12,582 disability claims related to burn pits since 2007.
A similar bill to Davidson’s was introduced in the Senate in July by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
“We must help family members grieving the loss of their veterans receive their rightful benefits by requiring investigations into whether service-related disabilities contribute to veterans’ coronavirus-related deaths,” Sinema said at the time in a statement.
Davidson’s bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Richard Hudson and Mark Walker, both R-N.C. The measure is also backed by Democratic Reps. Lori Trahan of Massachusetts, Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.