By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist
About 86,000 Vietnam War veterans, their surviving spouses or estates will be eligible for retroactive disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs — an average of 11.4 years for veterans and 9.6 years for survivors — under a draft VA rule to expand by three the number of diseases presumed caused by herbicide exposure in the war.
The 86,000 are beneficiaries who can reopen previously denied claims for these conditions: Ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and chronic B-cell blood cancers, including hairy cell leukemia. Another 29,000 claims are expected to be approved this year for Vietnam veterans suffering from these diseases but applying for benefits for the first time.
The projected cost of this dramatic expansion of claims linked to Agent Orange and other defoliants deployed four decades ago is $13.6 billion this fiscal year and $42.2 billion over 10 years.
In the proposed rule published March 25 in the Federal Register, VA officials explained that Secretary Eric Shinseki has cut the usual 60-day public comment period by half “to promote rapid action” on these claims.
When a final rule is published, soon after April 26, VA claim offices across the country can begin making payments. Veterans with these diseases will need to show they set foot in Vietnam during the war. Those who served aboard ship just off the coast remain ineligible. John Maki, assistant national service director for Disabled American Veterans, said DAV was glad to see the comment period cut to 30 days.
Otherwise, the draft regulation contains no surprises. “It basically is going to take those three conditions and just add them to disabilities already listed as presumptive diseases for Agent Orange,” Maki said.
One surprise still might be the thoroughness of the draft rule’s analysis of the beneficiary populations and the costs facing the department from this wave of claims for both retroactive payments and new benefits.
Adding ischemic heart disease to the list of presumptive Agent Orange illnesses is by far the most significant part of the new rule, accounting for 82 percent of additional expected payments to beneficiaries.
The rule defines ischemic health disease as a condition causing inadequate supply of blood and oxygen to the myocardium, the middle and thickest layer of the heart wall.
Because IHD is a heart disease it “does not include hypertension or peripheral manifestations of arteriosclerosis such as peripheral vascular disease or stroke,” the draft regulation explains.
VA assumes that veterans with Parkinson’s disease or for B-cell leukemia will be awarded a 100-percent disability ratings. The average rating for ischemic heart diseases is expected to be 60 percent.
To file claims online visit: http://vabenefits.vba.va.gov/vonapp/main.asp
Veterans without a computer can call a toll-free helpline at 1-800-749-8387.
VA maintains a directory of veterans’ service organizations with trained staff to help in filing claims. The Web site:www1.va.gov/vso/
Many state, county and local governments also have personnel to help. Find information on these agencies at: http://www.va.gov/statedva.htm