Last week, President Trump signed the Arla Harrell Act into law, which is intended to secure VA benefits for World War II veterans who were exposed to chemicals in experiments. The bill, sponsored by Senators Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt of Missouri, passed in the Senate the week before. Arla Harrell is one of an estimated 400 surviving WWII veterans who were exposed to chemicals such as phosgene gas, mustard gas, and lewisite as part of an international testing operation. Participants in the test were sworn to secrecy by threat of court-martial until the government lifted the oath in the 1990s. Prior to this date, participants could not tell their doctors the nature of their ailments.
Filing a disability VA appeal must be done within one year of a Rating Decision for benefits and should only be filed if you disagree with a recent Rating Decision. The appeals process is complex and requires much paperwork as well as adherence to strict deadlines. You will file for a rating increase claim if your claim is over a year old and your condition has worsened since your last Rating Decision. Post-traumatic stress disorder claims are frequently denied, often for lack of evidence or improper evidence of the condition. A PTSD disability appeal gives you a chance to present new evidence. Please be sure to contact a certified VA disability attorney for help with either a VA appeal or ratings increase claim.
President Trump is expected to sign the Forever GI Bill, and it will cost more than $3 billion over the next 10 years. Veterans Affairs Secretary, David Shulkin, stated: “It restores benefits to veterans who were impacted by school closures since 2015 and has special benefits for our reservists, surviving dependents, and Purple Heart recipients.” Veterans will also no longer have a 15-year limit on educational benefits for new enlistees. Some other changes include: Veterans whose colleges closed in the middle of the semester will get restored benefits; Expanded benefits emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math degrees) programs through financial initiatives; All Purple Heart recipients since September 11, 2011 are eligible for educational benefits; New service members may use the benefit throughout their lifetime so long as they were discharged on or after January 1, 2013; GI Bill entitlements may be transferred to another dependent or spouse upon the serviceman or servicewoman’s death.
The number of disability cases that are related to PTSD has nearly tripled in the last decade from around 345,000 cases in 2008 to more than 940,000 today. 22 percent of all veterans receiving compensation benefits from the department are service-connected PTSD benefits. Ronald Burke, the assistant deputy undersecretary at the Veterans Benefits Administration said that one of the reasons for the spike in PTSD claims has been the decision to relax eligibility and evidentiary rules for PTSD diagnoses since 2010. Additionally, more public attention on the topic and more awareness among veterans has prompted veterans to file claims. Both the VA and the Defense Department have been working to erase the stigma attached to seeking help for mental illness.
Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize a causal connection between Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War and Glioblastoma, a kind of brain cancer. The VA has made exceptions in the past and allowed some veterans to prove the connection between Agent Orange exposure and Glioblastoma. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is working to make sure fewer veterans have to jump through hoops to obtain this recognition: “There have been more than 20 individual appeals of vets with Glioblastoma that have been approved.” Senator Schumer has requested that the VA make publicly available “all claims submitted by veterans, or VSOs on a veteran’s behalf, for service-connected disability compensation due to a veteran’s diagnosis of Glioblastoma.” He has also asked the VA to fill in gaps of information in its data set for Vietnam era veterans who have been diagnosed with Glioblastoma. Diagnoses received by private physicians are not counted in the VA’s data. Lastly, Senator Schumer encouraged the VA to commission research “to determine whether a causal relationship exists between Glioblastoma and exposure to dioxins like Agent Orange.”
VA Secretary David Shulkin recently assured transgender veterans that, despite President Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military, the VA’s services will be unaffected. As Secretary Shulkin stated: “I’ve assured them that our mission is to take care of all veterans and take care of them in a way that respects their dignity and provides care in the way that they deserve to get care.” He continued: “So, our commitment will be: As long as they are veterans, we are there for them for life, and we will continue to care for all vets.”
A House Bill recently passed 414-0 that will now move to the Senate to provide $2.1 billion to continue funding the Veterans Choice program, which allows veterans access to private medical care. An additional $1.8 billion will go to core VA programs, which include 28 leases for new VA medical facilities. As House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy stated: “Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter where veterans get care as long as they get the care they need.” More than 30 percent of VA appointments are currently in the private sector. The VA’s annual budget is approximately $180 billion.
Senator Claire McCaskill has asked the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America for information regarding how veterans have been affected by “other than honorable discharges” from the military. She’s also inquired what steps they would like to Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to take. A report from the Government Accountability Office found that thousands of veterans who received misconduct separations had diagnoses of Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD, and other related diagnoses within two years prior to their separation. Veterans can receive an “other than honorable discharge” for a variety of reasons, and the characterization of a veteran’s discharge plays a role in determining VA benefit eligibility.
A series of secret chemical and biological weapons tests were conducted by the Pentagon on military personnel in the 1960s and 1970s. The tests involved approximately 6,000 military personnel and involved nerve agents like Sarin and Vx and bacteria like E. Coli. Both parties of Congress are urging the Pentagon to declassify information on the tests or explain why it cannot this week when it considers a defense policy bill. As Representative Mike Thompson of California stated: “It’s been over 50 years since these tests were conducted and the DOD has yet to provide a complete accounting of what truly happened to our service members. Veterans can’t wait any longer.” Without this kind of information, it can be difficult for veterans to get the care they need for diseases and conditions that may have stemmed from these secret tests.
Veterans who claim Gulf War Illness are three times less likely than other veterans to have their disability claims approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Government Accountability Office said some of the reasons for the denials include VA staff who don’t understand the disease well and veterans who file for benefits without the proper medical records to support their claims. Veterans who served in the Gulf War are at increased risk for gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, joint pain, and neurological disorders. The VA said that its compensation and pension examiners will be required to take a 90 minute course on Gulf War Illness and make necessary changes to the notification process when veteran claims are denied by August.