VA announces change in Agent Orange benefit claims process

The Veterans Affairs Department is easing the standards under which Vietnam War veterans qualify for benefits related to Agent Orange exposure.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on Monday announced the department is adding three illnesses to the list of conditions for which veterans aren't required to demonstrate a connection to military service. The final rule, to be published in Tuesday's Federal Register, states VA will presume veterans with Parkinson's Disease, ischemic heart disease and all chronic B cell leukemia have been exposed to Agent Orange.

Shinseki's decision is based on a 2008 study from the Institute of Medicine on health problems Agent Orange causes. Veterans who served in Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, are presumed to have been exposed to the herbicide.

VA expects more than 150,000 veterans to submit Agent Orange claims in the next 12 to 18 months and will review approximately 90,000 previously denied claims. The new regulation will speed the claims process and result in faster distribution of benefits, which could amount to $13 billion in the next year, according to department officials.

In a Saturday speech at the American Legion National Convention, VA acting Secretary for Benefits Michael Walcoff defended Shinseki's decision against criticism of the program's potential cost.

"The fact is we're obeying the law," Walcoff said. "The law says that anybody who was in country is entitled to the presumptions. Besides that, I believe that what we're doing is the right thing to do. It's what [Secretary Shinseki] wants to do."

But Walcoff added the new claims process won't take effect immediately. VA can begin awarding benefits for new claims and making retroactive payments for earlier applications only following a 60-day congressional review period after the rule is published in the Federal Register.

VA officials in July announced a new rule making it easier for veterans to submit claims and receive compensation for service-related post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the guidelines, a veteran's statement alone can be considered evidence of a PTSD-causing event, though a VA psychiatrist or psychologist must verify the veteran is experiencing PTSD and that the claim is consistent with service performed.

Shinseki will testify before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Sept. 23 on the new Agent Orange rule.

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