Funeral folded flag performed at a funeral for veterans with full military honors.

Funeral folded flag performed at a funeral for veterans with full military honors. (Christopher S. Muncy/U.S. Air National Guard)

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WASHINGTON — National veterans’ groups urged lawmakers Wednesday to pass legislation to help families of coronavirus victims gain access to government benefits.

John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said that early in the pandemic his group heard from families of deceased veterans who were having trouble securing survivor benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA was denying claims because the death certificates said the veterans died of the coronavirus, rather than underlying conditions that stemmed from military service.

“We want to make sure it’s understood that, while COVID started this whole thing, the underlying conditions really killed the veteran,” Rowan said. “We want their families to get their due.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced a bill that would require the VA to get a medical opinion to determine whether a service-connected disability was the principal or contributing cause of death in these cases. The legislation, titled the Ensuring Survivor Benefits During COVID-19 Act of 2021, could help thousands of family members gain access to VA benefits.

The benefit, known as dependency and indemnity compensation, is a monthly check paid to family members of veterans whose deaths were the result of service-related injuries or diseases. Survivors are also eligible for the benefit if the veteran received VA disability compensation for at least 10 years before death, even if their death wasn’t related to military service.

As of Thursday, 11,766 VA patients had died of the coronavirus.

While the direct cause of death was the coronavirus for many veterans, Rowan argued that underlying conditions exacerbated the illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with certain medical conditions can be more likely to get severely ill from the virus. The illnesses include cancer, chronic kidney disease, lung diseases, diabetes, liver disease and heart conditions.

The bill was part of a hearing held Wednesday by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Along with Vietnam Veterans of America, representatives from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and Disabled American Veterans spoke in favor of the bill. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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