Correction: Due to incomplete information from the Department of Veterans Affairs, an earlier version of this story gave an inaccurate timeline for processing all claims.
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 take time for some veterans.
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 this week. VA will be able to process claims and begin payouts after that happens.
For claims already in the system, those payouts could take a few days or weeks to start. For individuals submitting news claims, or resubmitting old claims, the wait could be much longer.
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 separation from the military, 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.
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.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.