Ex-VA Boss: Elderly Vet Claims Worsen Backlog

A former Department of Veterans Affairs chief questioned if veterans in their later years are filing claims from conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease that may have more to do with aging than their military service.

In 2010, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki added illnesses such as heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and leukemia to the conditions VA officials can presume in Vietnam veterans to be caused by Agent Orange exposure. Others on the list include Type 2 diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, and respiratory cancers, among them lung cancer.

Anthony Principi, a Vietnam War combat vet who led the VA under President George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said the addition of these illnesses makes it much harder for the VA to determine what may have come from exposure and what from old age.

These decisions not only caused the backlog that today has Iraq and Afghanistan veterans waiting a year and longer for action on their claims, but have increased the compensation budget by millions annually, Principi said.

In some cases, men in their 70s and older are being awarded a 100 percent disability based on a finding that they cannot work, Principi said. These veterans are essentially receiving the same compensation as a soldier who lost both legs in Afghanistan.

“Why are we doing this?” Principi asked in an interview with Military.com. “I served a year in Vietnam. ... My dad died of prostate cancer. I’ll probably die of prostate cancer.”

And because there is no time limit on filing, he could file even when he is in his 90s, Principi said. If he then died of cancer, his widow “would get the same amount of compensation as the widow of someone killed in Afghanistan.”

Of the roughly one million claims filed each year, he said 80 percent come from pre-9/11 vets. Thirty-seven percent are filed by Vietnam veterans, and another 11 percent by veterans who did not serve in a conflict.

Meanwhile, about 6,000 American troops have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and about 50,000 or so have been wounded or injured. That means their contribution to the claims backlog is tiny when compared to past wars, Principi says.

 “I think the [VA] has lost its focus. We are doing a disservice to the men and women hurt in harm’s way or in training accidents preparing to go into harm’s way,” he said.

Principi acknowledged he played a part in the growing backlog, as President George W. Bush’s VA secretary in 2002, when he signed a Clinton administration regulation making Type II diabetes compensable for Agent Orange exposure.

He said his decision was the right one then, but it’s time to place some timeframe limits on the presumptive.

Peter Gaytan, executive director of The American Legion, said his organization defends the presumptive and the right of eligible veterans to file claims for them. The Legion commissioned a study proving the long-term effects of Agent Orange on those who served in Vietnam.

“Barring veterans from the benefits they have earned is not the best way to go about eliminating the claims backlog.” Gaytan said in an email to Military.com. “Presumptive conditions are based on sound medical research, and their effects should never be marginalized. ... The effects of battle are borne in many ways and some of them aren’t so obvious. Does that mean we grant benefits only for the most obvious wounds of war? The American Legion doesn’t think so.”

The best solution, says Gaytan, is improved efficiency.

“A more constructive response to the claims backlog has been VA’s Fully Developed Claims program, which The American Legion has been involved with since last December,” he said. Legion case officers working with veterans are increasingly filing FDCs, he said, which move through the system in an average of about 120 days. That means they never become part of the backlog, he said.

Principi said he is not surprised the veteran service organizations are not supportive of putting some kind of limit on when a veteran can file a claim for a presumptive condition. Groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans and The American Legion have all supported past decisions to expand the listing of conditions presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure.

However, in private, Principi said leaders of these veterans organizations know a change is warranted.

 “The [veterans’ service organizations] know there needs to be a change -- several of them told me privately that I’m correct, that I’m right,” Principi said. “But they can’t speak out publicly. ... But I would hope again that people would come together and look at it rationally.”

Darin Selnick, a retired Air Force captain and member of the organizing committee of Concerned Veterans for America, said VSOs are membership organizations and they are going to advocate for their members. And that means encouraging veterans to take advantage of any legitimate program or benefit.

“When I got off active duty, the DAV would say, ‘whether you have anything or not, just file.’ They [claims] are still being pushed,” said Selnick, who belongs to The American Legion. “If you’re 80 years old, is it possible you’re going to have hearing loss? Sure. But I’ve got veterans who VSOs ask if they want to file a claim for hearing loss” for service long past.

Fixing the problem means getting the VA back to its original mission of taking care of the war-wounded and the families of the fallen, says Principi, something he acknowledges will be a tough sell in Washington.

“There doesn’t seem to be any will [in Congress] to address any of the tough issues. If they can’t address national security, you think they’re going to address this? I don’t think so,” he said.

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