In August 2021, the VA added three presumptive conditions related to particulate matter exposure. The new presumptive conditions are asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis. To be eligible for benefits, you must have gotten one of these conditions within 10 years of your separation from active service.
This will expand benefits for Veterans who served in:
- Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria, and Uzbekistan during the Persian Gulf War, from September 19, 2001, to the present, or
- The Southwest Asia theater of operations from August 2, 1990, to the present
If you have a pending claim for one or more of these conditions, you don’t need to do anything. The VA will send you a decision notice when they complete their review.
On November 11, 2021, the current administration ordered VA to apply a new model to review evidence of service connection for rare respiratory cancers and constrictive bronchiolitis. The White House order states:
“VA will further test the new presumptive model to assess potential associations between military environmental exposures and constrictive bronchiolitis, lung cancers, and rare respiratory cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx or trachea and salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea. The President has directed VA to complete the review of rare cancers and provide recommendations about new presumptions of service connection within 90 days. Based on the results of this review, the Administration will consider initiating additional rulemaking. Once the process is complete, the Administration will continue to test this model on additional health conditions and exposures to ensure more timely review and consideration of potential service connection.”
The administration is also calling on Congress to to implement a change to the statute to enable a longer enhanced enrollment period for the 3 million veterans who deployed to support recent combat operations. At present, VA allows veterans to receive free VA health care for up to 5 years after discharge or release for any condition related to service in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Operation New Dawn (OND) in Iraq. This is called an “enhanced eligibility period.”
Additionally, the VA does consider burn pit compensation claims for exposure to burn pits on a case-by-case basis. The agency places the burden on the veteran to establish the service connection to their conditions.
Any claim for burn pit compensation requires a veteran to establish a service-connected disability. A viable claim includes:
- A current diagnosis of a chronic physical or mental disability
- Eligible periods of service, or a verifiable stressor
- A connection between your current diagnosis and the in-service event.
If you have a condition or disease that you believe may be a secondary connection as a result of exposure to burn pits or other airborne hazards, having a credible medical opinion from a specialist — essentially a letter from the specialist physician saying that a condition “more likely than not” is related to a presumptive service connection will add to your medical record.
Also, you can sign up on the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit registry to document your exposure, schedule an exam, and learn about follow-up care.
What if you’re an active duty service member?
Active duty service members should always seek medical care for any symptoms or conditions that may be related to deployments. Full disclosure on post-deployment health assessments is important. These documents can be used as evidence in any future claims for VA compensation benefits.
Service members begin the process of filing for Veterans benefits during out-processing, generally within the last 120 days of service. Out-processing activities and briefings can start as early as 24 months prior to discharge.
Gather all documents related to deployment and build a personal file. Include such as documents as:
- Pre- and post-deployment surveys, questionnaires, and exams
- Copy of deployment orders
- Copy of any troop movement orders, including TDYs into combat zones areas
- Copy of sick call notes, accident or injury reports
- Copy of all awards or medals citations and authorization orders
- Copy of LESs that show combat or other special pays authorized
- Copy of journals kept, letters written, pictures taken while deployed
Servicemembers are eligible to sign up for the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. The basic eligibility requirements for the Registry are:
(1) Deployment to contingency operations in the Southwest Asia theater of operations on or after August 2, 1990, or (2) Afghanistan or Djibouti on or after September 11, 2001. These regions include the following countries, bodies of water, and the airspace above these locations:
- Saudi Arabia
- Gulf of Aden
- Gulf of Oman
- United Arab Emirates
- Waters of the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Red Sea
All eligible servicemembers are encouraged to sign up for the Registry. The Registry allows the VA to monitor health conditions and exposures – and as you may know through media attention to Agent Orange from the Vietnam Era, data is critical to the VA, Institute of Medicine (IOM), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other government agencies when researching the long term affects of exposures.
Beginning in 2022, VA will launch VET-HOME, The Veterans Exposure Team-Health Outcomes of Military Exposures. VET-HOME will consist of two interconnected parts: a call center for veterans and providers, and a nationwide network of specialists. Veterans with questions about environmental exposures will call into a central location and be guided through the registry exam or environmental exposure process.
They would then be referred to one of 40 environmental health providers across the United States who would use a telemedicine platform to assess and if necessary refer the veteran to a VA facility to complete any specialty testing, like a pulmonary function test or other lab work. Providers with questions on military exposures would be referred to one the 40 military environmental heath subject matter experts. The results of the consultation would be shared with the veteran’s primary care doctor, helping to deliver better care to the veteran.