New rules posted to the federal register on Thursday make it possible for American service members exposed to Agent Orange years after the Vietnam War to be awarded compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for related health problems.
But it is unlikely that many of the now-eligible, dioxin-sickened veterans who previously applied for compensation will have an active date-of-claim any earlier than tomorrow -- June 19, 2015 -- when the rule change takes effect.
"The effective date will generally be the date of publication of the interim final rule -- in this case, June 19, 2015 -- as long as the veteran or reservist files a new or reopened claim with VA within one year of that date," VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz said.
The rule change applies to 2,000 or more veterans, most of them Air Force reservists who served aboard or maintained C-123 Providers contaminated with Agent Orange for years after the planes' defoliation missions over Vietnam ended.
Until now, the VA has not recognized these service members for the purposes of Agent Orange compensation, and denied claims based on exposure to the dioxin.
One VA official, talking on background because he was not authorized to speak for the department, said one exception to the June 19 date-of-claim would be if a C-123 veteran has a claim that has not yet been denied. In that case, he said, compensation would commence from the original file date if the claim is approved.
The official was uncertain if there were other exceptions.
Bart Stichman, an attorney and joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, expressed disappointment in general with the VA's decision to not reconsider denied claims from the original file dates.
"That's what I feared," he told Military.com on Thursday. "They're not going to go retro. That hurts people with longstanding claims. And they could have gone retro, so it's giving [veterans] half a loaf."
Stichman, who has been involved in Agent Orange cases and litigation with the VA for decades, said there are many veterans who filed claims in connection with exposure to Agent Orange aboard post-war C-123s, though he does not know just how many.
The VA said on Monday that the rules change was imminent and only awaited approval of the White House Office of Management and Budget. That happened on Thursday.
The Associated Press reported that the cost of the compensation will be about $45.7 million over the next 10 years, with separate health care coverage adding to that cost.
Stichman said the VA has, by its long delays in recognizing these veterans as victims of Agent Orange, harmed them. By refusing to honor the dates of previously filed claims, he said, "the delay is doubly harming."
It's not the first time the VA has done this, he said.
In 2011, the VA expanded compensation eligibility to troops exposed to Agent Orange along the Korean DMZ, but would pay claims only from the date of the rule change, he said. The NVLSP has a case in federal court seeking to change that, Stichman said.
In a statement announcing the change, VA Secretary Bob McDonald said the department will begin accepting and processing claims immediately.
The NVLSP and other veterans' organizations have pressed Congress and the VA for years to honor claims filed by service members who served aboard the C-123s after Vietnam. Studies, including one published in January by the Institute of Medicine, backed veterans' claims that the planes remained contaminated by the dioxin and were making the airmen ill.
The IOM study was requested by the VA.
Between 1972 and 1982, the study found, some 1,500 to 2,100 Air Force Reserve members trained and worked on the planes that had conducted the aerial spraying over Vietnam. Samples taken from the aircraft showed the presence of Agent Orange residues, the IOM found.
McDonald on Thursday said the decision to expand benefits following receipt of the IOM report was "the right thing to do."
The evidence was needed, he said, "to ensure we can now fully compensate any former crew member who develops an Agent Orange-related disability."
Those eligible included Air Force and Air Force Reserve flight, medical and ground maintainer personnel who served on the contaminated planes. The VA will now presume that development of Agent Orange-related conditions was caused by exposure to the residue.
The VA identified several specific units and bases where members could have been exposed to the residue, including the 906th and 907th Tactical Air Groups, or 355th and 356th Tactical Airlift Squadrons at Lockbourne/Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio; the 731st Tactical Air Squadron and 74th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts; and the 758th Airlift Squadron during the period 1969 to 1986 at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, International Airport.
Airmen who served at these units and locations may file for a disability compensation claim online through the joint VA-Department of Defense web portal, eBenefits.
The VA also said in its statement that the contaminated aircraft may have been used at several active-duty Air Force bases following their service in Vietnam.
Those who served on an active-duty base where the aircraft were assigned or who had "regular and repeated contact with the aircraft through flight, ground or medical duties during the period 1969 to 1986, and who develop an Agent Orange-related disability" may apply by going to this VA website.
Claims not filed through eBenefits should be mailed to Department of Veterans Affairs, Claims Intake Center, Attention: C123 Claims, P.O. Box 5088, Janesville, WI 53547-5088. Alternatively, the claims may be faxed to the Wisconsin center at 608-373-6694.
Veterans with specific benefit questions related to dioxin exposure on C-123s may call the VA's C-123 Hotline at 1-800-749-8387 (available 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST) or e-mail VSCC123.VAVBASPL@va.gov.
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