NEWS | Sept. 30, 2010

VA officials extend coverage for Gulf War veterans

By Donna Miles American Forces Press Service

Veterans of the Gulf War as well as current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan now have a smoother path toward receiving health care benefits and disability compensation for nine diseases associated with their military service, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki announced Sept. 29.

A final regulation published in the Federal Register relieves veterans of the burden of proving these diseases are service-related: brucellosis, campylobacter jejuni, coxiella burnetii (Q fever), malaria, mycobacterium tuberculosis, nontyphoid salmonella, shigella, visceral leishmaniasis and West Nile virus.

Secretary Shinseki added the new presumptions after reviewing a 2006 National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine report on the long-term health effects of certain diseases suffered among Gulf War veterans.

He also extended the presumptions to veterans of Afghanistan, based on NAS findings that the nine diseases are prevalent there as well.

The new presumptions apply to veterans who served in Southwest Asia beginning on or after the start of Operation Desert Shield on Aug. 2, 1990, through Operation Desert Storm to the present, including the current conflict in Iraq. Veterans who served in Afghanistan on or after Sept. 19, 2001, also qualify.

For Secretary Shinseki, who pledged to honor the 20th anniversary of the Gulf War by improving health care access and benefits for its 697,000 veterans, the new presumptions represent a long-overdue step in addressing the medical challenges many face.

"This is part of historic changes in how VA considers Gulf War veterans' illnesses," he said. "By setting up scientifically based presumptions of service connection, we give these deserving veterans a simple way to obtain the benefits they earned in service to our country."

The new presumptions initially are expected to affect just under 2,000 veterans who have been diagnosed with the nine specified diseases, said John Gingrich, the VA's chief of staff. He acknowledged that the numbers are likely to climb as more cases are identified.

With the final rule, a veteran needs only to show service in Southwest Asia or Afghanistan during the specified time periods to receive disability compensation, subject to certain time limits based on incubation periods for seven of the diseases.

"It gives them easier access to quality health care and compensation benefits," Mr. Gingrich said. "The message behind that is that the VA is striving to make access to health care easier for our veterans who have served in our combat zones."

He expressed hope that by providing quick, easy access, VA officials will help veterans get the care they need early on, without having to fight the bureaucracy.

"When we find these presumptions and we reach out and get the veterans into our system, we can help them and give them the proper medical care they need, and maybe keep their disease from getting worse or getting it to go away altogether," Mr. Gingrich said.

It also will help eliminate the piles of paperwork and long claims adjudication process veterans had to go through to prove their cases to receive care and benefits.

"This will help break the back of the backlog in the long run, while sending a reassuring message to veterans that the VA is there for them," Mr. Gingrich said.

He called the new presumptions part of Secretary Shinseki's effort to "create a culture of advocacy" within VA that builds trust as it reaches out to veterans.

VA provides compensation and pension benefits to more than 3.8 million veterans and beneficiaries, and received more than 1 million claims last year alone, VA officials reported. Veterans without dependents receive a basic monthly compensation ranging from $123 to $2,673.