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VA Expanding Toxic Exposure Compensation

Secretary McDonough said the agency will increase its scope of benefits provided to veterans exposed to chemical agents during their service.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has announced an expansion to the disability claims benefits provided to veterans who have suffered from toxic exposure during their time in the service.

Speaking to reporters in advance of Memorial Day, Secretary Denis McDonough outlined the primary compensation areas VA will be expanding as the first part of a broader effort to provide a greater scope of service-related benefits.

“VA is leaning forward and seeking every avenue possible to expand benefits for disability resulting from conditions related to toxic exposure. So today I’m proud to announce two major decisions related to redemptive conditions. The first is associated with Agent Orange and the second involves particulate matter exposures during military service and Southwest Asia,” McDonough said.

The Agent Orange-related benefits will cover certain conditions more comprehensively, providing a fuller scope of compensation than previously offered to veterans whose health was directly harmed by the defoliant.

“VA will begin implementing provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, adding three conditions to the list of those presumptively associated with exposure to herbicide agents also known as Agent Orange. These conditions are bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and parkinsonism. This means that any Vietnam veteran suffering from one of these three newly added conditions can now file and receive benefits and care for them,” McDonough said.

This will also include review and allocation of benefits for veterans and their families whose prior claims of Agent Orange compensation were denied.

“These veterans and their survivors who previously filed and were denied benefits for these conditions will have their cases automatically reviewed without the need to refile. VBA estimates approximately 52,000 veterans and 6,000 survivors will be receiving benefit payments in the first year alone,” McDonough said.

The VA is also instating a new process for adjudicating benefits for veterans exposed to other toxic substances during deployments in Vietnam and Afghanistan, expanding the scope of compensation for service-related injury and disability.

“VA is initiating rulemaking to consider creating new presumptions of service connection, connection for respiratory illnesses, including asthma, sinusitis and rhinitis, based on association or exposure to particular matter during military service in Southwest Asia, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan,” McDonough said.

These efforts represent the VA’s ongoing focus on streamlining its claims and benefits process, with greater recompense for service-related health issues accompanied by records digitization and IT modernization to expedite claims awards. These efforts come amid the COVID-19 pandemic when widespread process efficiencies resulted in 2020 becoming the Veteran Benefits Administration’s “best year ever.”

McDonough emphasized that the current focus on providing toxic exposure compensation is only part of an ongoing effort to provide duly owed benefits that may not have been adequately addressed in the past — with future compensation for additional benefits likely as this process continues.

“The bottom line is that for too long, far too many of our nation’s veterans and their survivors have been waiting for benefits. Now they won’t have to wait any longer. This is just the beginning of our effort to help vets suffering from toxic exposure, not the end of that effort. This is an urgent, ongoing process and we will stop at nothing to make sure our vets have the care and benefits they’ve earned, and which they deserve,” McDonough said.

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