Sweeping New Law Expands Veterans' Medical and Disability Benefits

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Sgt. Richard Ganske, 84th Combat Engineer Battalion uses a bulldozer to manuever refuse into the burn pit; sorting and burning it to manage LSA Anacondas sanitation requirements.
Sgt. Richard Ganske, 84th Combat Engineer Battalion, uses a bulldozer to maneuver refuse into the burn pit; sorting and burning it to manage LSA Anacondas sanitation requirements. (Photo courtesy of the 28th Public Affairs Detachment)

Veterans from many eras who suffer from chronic illnesses related to their military service just became eligible for free health care and disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In perhaps the largest health-care and benefits expansion in VA history, the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act extended VA benefits to millions of veterans who were exposed to radiation and hazardous chemicals as part of their military service since the 1960s.

See: President Signs Historic Toxic Exposure Bill Extending Benefits to Millions of Veterans

This law expanded eligibility and added several medical conditions to VA's list of "presumptive conditions" that automatically qualify a veteran for free medical care and possibly a monthly disability payment from the VA. 

When a medical condition is presumptive, the VA presumes it was caused by military service. If a veteran is suffering from a presumptive illness, they do not need to prove their illness was caused by military service. They only need to have served during a specific time period in a specific location.

See: Disability Benefits for Presumptive Conditions

Expanded Benefits Based On Hazardous Exposures

Military service often brings service members in contact with hazards, including radiation or dangerous chemicals; the new law recognizes that sometimes these hazards are very widespread and affect a large group of military members. As a result, the VA is adding the following hazards and locations to their list of specific operational theaters that qualify veterans for health and disability benefits under the presumptive conditions program:

Radiation

Veterans exposed to radiation during the response effort after aircraft accidents involving nuclear weapons in Spain from Jan. 17, 1966, to March 31, 1967, and in Greenland from Jan. 21, 1968, to Sept. 25, 1968, are now eligible for health-care and disability benefits. 

Also becoming eligible are veterans involved in the cleanup of Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands  from Jan. 1, 1977, through Dec. 31, 1980.

Agent Orange

Two new illnesses -- monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance and hypertension (high blood pressure) -- were added to the list of  presumptive conditions caused by exposure to the herbicide widely used during the Vietnam war.. 

The following qualifying service locations were also expanded and added:

  • Vietnam from Jan. 9, 1962, through May 7, 1975;
  • Thailand at any U.S. or Royal Thai base from Jan. 9, 1962, through June 30, 1976;
  • Laos from Dec. 1, 1965, through Sept. 30, 1969;
  • Cambodia at Mimot or Krek, Kampong Cham Province from April 16, 1969, through April 30, 1969; or
  • Guam or American Samoa, or in their waters, from Jan. 9, 1962, through July 31, 1980, or on Johnston Atoll or on a ship that visited Johnston Atoll from Jan. 1, 1972, through Sept. 30, 1977.

Related: Agent Orange

Most veterans will be eligible to receive these expanded benefits on Oct. 1, 2022; however, some including surviving spouses receiving Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) and veterans who are terminally ill, homeless, suffering hardship, older than 85 years old or terminally ill will be eligible on Aug. 10, 2022.

Persian Gulf War Syndrome

The time restrictions for claiming health and disability benefits for illnesses related to Gulf War Syndrome have been removed. Previously, only those who were diagnosed during active duty or before December 2021 were eligible, and there were stipulations on how long a veteran must have suffered from the disease before being eligible. 

Now the law says that any veteran who suffered one of the qualifying illnesses to any degree at any time is eligible.. 

See: Gulf War Syndrome

The law also adds Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Turkey to the covered Persian Gulf War theater of operations area. 

Burn Pit And Toxic Chemical Exposure

The most sweeping section of the new law codifies exposure to toxic chemicals related to burn pits and other toxic chemicals during certain military operations. More than 20 new illnesses have been added to the list of presumptive conditions caused by chemical exposure.

See: Veterans Exposed to Burning Oil Wells and Burn Pits Eligible for Special Program

To qualify for benefits, the veteran must have served either:

  • On or after Aug. 2, 1990, in or above:

    • Bahrain

    • Iraq

    • Kuwait

    • Oman

    • Qatar

    • Saudi Arabia

    • Somalia

    • United Arab Emirates

  • Or on or after Sept. 11, 2001, in or above:

    • Afghanistan

    • Djibouti

    • Egypt

    • Jordan

    • Lebanon

    • Syria

    • Uzbekistan

    • Yemen

Illnesses Related To Toxic Chemical Exposure

These illnesses are now considered automatically qualifying for VA health care and possible disability benefits based on military service: 

  • Asthma diagnosed after leaving the service
  • The following types of cancer:
    • Brain cancer
    • Head cancer of any type
    • Gastrointestinal cancer of any type
    • Glioblastoma
    • Kidney cancer
    • Lymphoma cancer of any type
    • Lymphatic cancer of any type
    • Melanoma
    • Neck cancer of any type
    • Pancreatic cancer
    • Reproductive cancer of any type
    • Respiratory cancer of any type
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Chronic rhinitis
  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Emphysema
  • Granulomatous disease
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Pleuritis
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sarcoidosis

Effective Dates of Eligibility

The new law will be phased in over the next several years, with different implementation dates for different diseases as well as different eligibility dates for health care and disability compensation eligibility. VA may begin providing health care or disability benefits at an earlier date, if possible. 

Some veterans and dependents such as those receiving DIC or veterans who are homeless, terminally ill, older than 85 or suffering financial hardship may be eligible to receive their benefits earlier as well.

The latest projected implementation dates are:

Health Care

  • Oct. 1, 2024, for veterans who were discharged between Aug. 2, 1990, and Sept. 11, 2001 
  • Oct. 1, 2026 for veterans who were discharged between Sept. 12, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2006
  • Oct. 1, 2028, for veterans who were discharged between Jan. 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2012
  • Oct. 1, 2030, for veterans who were discharged between Jan. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2018 
  • Oct. 1, 2032, for veterans who were discharged after Dec. 31, 2018

Disability Compensation

  • Effective Aug. 10, 2022, for veterans with: 
    • Asthma diagnosed after leaving the service
    • Brain cancer 
    • Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
    • Chronic rhinitis
    • Chronic sinusitis
    • Emphysema
    • Glioblastoma
    • Granulomatous disease
    • Interstitial lung disease 
    • Pleuritis
    • Pulmonary fibrosis
    • Respiratory cancer of any type 
    • Sarcoidosis 
  • Effective Oct. 1, 2023, for veterans with: 
    • Chronic bronchitis
    • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Effective Oct. 1, 2024, for veterans with:
    • Head cancer of any type 
    • Gastrointestinal cancer of any type
    • Lymphoma cancer of any type 
    • Lymphatic cancer of any type
    • Neck cancer of any type
    • Pancreatic cancer
    • Reproductive cancer of any type
    • Respiratory cancer of any type
  • Effective Oct. 1, 2025, for veterans with kidney cancer and melanoma

Even if you have been turned down for VA benefits before, the VA is encouraging everyone who thinks they may be eligible for these new expanded benefits to apply for them now at VA.gov.

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