Vets should file paperwork now

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans with ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease or B cell leukemia should file claims now with the Department of Veterans Affairs for disability compensation, not wait until VA publishes a regulation officially linking these diseases to wartime service.

Advocacy groups are urging the swift filing of claims because veterans eventually found eligible for disability pay for these diseases will be able to receive compensation back to the date their claims were filed. Those who wait for a regulation to add these ailments to VA’s list of diseases presumed caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other toxins used in the war could lessen, by several months of compensation, any retroactive pay that they will be due once their claims have been approved.

Help in filing claims is available through the Legion and its service officers as well as through most other major veterans’ organizations. A law firm representing the Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) sent a March 1 letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki demanding that VA publish by March 12 an interim regulation for adding these illnesses to its list of diseases presumed caused by Agent Orange — or face a lawsuit.

Longer delays in rulemaking, the letter said, will “result in irreparable harm to thousands of Vietnam veterans who suffer from these diseases” because VA compensation is not owed to “new claimants for any period prior to publication of a final regulation.”

What the letter didn’t make clear is that veterans can avoid the “irreparable harm” if they don’t wait for the regulation to file their claim.

The Agent Orange Act of 1991 requires VA to publish final regulations to expand its list of presumptive diseases within 210 days of receiving a report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) linking more illnesses to use of the herbicide during the war in Southeast Asia. That 210-day deadline was reached Feb. 19 without VA having published even an interim regulation.

A VA official said the Office of Management and Budget is expected to complete its review of VA’s interim regulation by the end of March. It then will be published in the Federal Register for public comment.

Shinseki had delighted veterans’ groups last October by announcing that VA would not challenge a July 24 report by the IOM that found sufficient epidemiologic evidence to suggest a link between wartime herbicide exposure and Parkinson’s disease, B cell leukemia and ischemic heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease.

Veterans who set foot in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975 and suffer today from one of these diseases will be in line for a disability rating and compensation once the regulation is final and claim adjudicators begin using it. By one estimate, as many as 185,000 veterans could be eligible for disability pay for these diseases.

The American Legion is sending out fresh guidance to its service officers to urge veterans who believe they have a claim under any one of the three illnesses to come in for free help in developing their claims.