New disability benefits for burn pit victims may still take months to process

New disability benefits for burn pit victims may still take months to process

Veterans Affairs officials expect to publish new rules granting presumptive benefits status for military burn pit victims as early as next week, but payouts still may be months away.

On Monday, department officials announced plans to give presumptive status for disability benefits to veterans who contracted asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis after serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other overseas war zones.

The move comes after years of lobbying by advocates for more lenient evaluation of disability claims regarding toxic exposure issues overseas, and after months of legislative work on the issue from the House and the Senate.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said an internal review of available research on burn pits and particulate matter pollution supported the change, and promised to “use a holistic approach in determining toxic exposure presumptives moving forward.”

But getting payouts in the hands of affected veterans will still take time. The department is expected to publish an interim final rule by Aug. 9, but a department spokesman said the plan is to “hold affected claims until the final regulations and procedures are in place.”

That process can take several months, depending on public comment and needed revisions.

For now, VA officials are reaching out to individuals who have filed claims in the past for the three illnesses to determine their eligibility

The department estimated more than 3.5 million troops were exposed to the toxic smoke from burn pits during overseas deployments over the last 20 years. Individuals eligible for the presumptive benefits status had to have developed one of the illnesses within 10 years of their deployment overseas, and had to have served in one of the following areas:

* the Southwest Asia theater of operations (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and more) from August 1990 to the present; or

* Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria or Djibouti from Sept. 19, 2001 to the present.

Any veteran who has a pending claim on those issues does not need to resubmit any paperwork. In June, the Veterans Benefits Administration began placing holds on those cases in advance of the anticipated rule change to prevent them from being rejected prematurely.

But individuals whose claims were rejected before then will need to reapply under the new rules. The department said those veterans should file a supplemental claim asking for a decision review.

Officials said they plan on sending letters in coming weeks to all potentially impacted veterans, including information on how to reapply for benefits.

“If you feel you have a chronic condition attributed to an in-service event, we highly encourage you to file a claim,” department officials said in a release on the changes. “VA will assist with obtaining medical evidence and may request an examination if necessary.”

The rules could change again in coming months. Both the House and Senate are considering sweeping toxic exposure bills that would grant the presumptive benefits status for veterans suffering from certain rare cancers and other respiratory illnesses.

House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif. (center), speaks during a press conference on new veterans toxic exposure legislation on May 26. (Photo courtesy of House Veterans' Affairs).

On Monday, officials from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America praised the news but urged lawmakers to continue with those plans.

“Too many servicemembers and veterans have become ill and died due to exposure to toxic substances during their deployments,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of the group.

“While the VA’s move to process certain health claims based on toxic exposure was a positive step, more must be done to ensure those who served our country have access to the healthcare and benefits they have earned.”

More information on the decision and how to apply for benefits is available on the department’s web site.

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Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.