A lawmaker on Tuesday suggested Congress may have to redraft part of the initial legislation authorizing the Veterans Affairs Department to grant claims compensation to Persian Gulf War veterans suffering from multi-symptom ailments that make up Gulf War Illness.
Responding to testimony showing the VA has denied compensation to more than 90 percent of veterans claiming Gulf War Illness, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-New Hampshire, said it was not Congress' intent to require VA accept an undiagnosed multi-symptom disorder as a condition.
"We created this Catch-22," Kuster said during a joint hearing of the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs and Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. "It sounds like an unintended consequence of what we were trying to do to help Gulf War veterans … They had multi-symptoms and we didn't have the science and the words" to properly describe what we wanted VA to do.
Gulf War veterans and advocates say that 90 percent or more Gulf War veterans who apply for compensation for Gulf War Illness are turned down. VA officials say veterans filing claims for Gulf War Illness may still be compensated when a particular symptom or symptoms are diagnosed and service-connected. But the compensation would be for the chronic symptom -- sinusitis or gastritis, for example -- but not for Gulf War Illness.
Congress in 1994 authorized the VA to compensate Gulf War vets suffering from a chronic disability resulting from an undiagnosed -- or combination of undiagnosed illnesses -- linked to service in the Gulf War. But the result, Kuster suggests, is that VA awards claims for Gulf War Illness when symptoms cannot be diagnosed.
She suggested the committee could urge VA Secretary Bob McDonald to move toward a single Disability Benefits Questionnaire tailored for Gulf War Illness claims. There are currently about 70 individual DBQs, according to the VA.
"But we may need to also unravel the Catch-22 we created in our attempt to help Gulf War veterans," she said.
Also during the hearing lawmakers said there is a need to extend the deadline by which Gulf War veterans need file claims for benefits for undiagnosed illnesses.
The deadline period is currently Dec. 31, 2016, and lawmakers want it extended by five years.
David R. McLenachen, VA Deputy Under Secretary for Disability Assistance, told the panels that McDonald has the authority to extend the deadline but was unable to say if that would happen.
But Ron Brown, president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, told Military.com on Tuesday that McDonald already informed him the presumptive date would be pushed back. He said McDonald told him in a letter dated Feb. 9, 2015 that he also was concerned with the "end date" for filing.
"We, once again, plan to use our existing regulatory authorities to extend the presumptive date beyond the current December 31, 2016, deadline," McDonald wrote. "This is consistent with our beliefs, our policy and our past actions."
In 2011 then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki used the same authority to extend the date -- then about to lapse -- to the end of 2016.
Rick Weidman, Executive Director for Policy and Governmental Affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America, likened the VA's treatment of Gulf War Veterans to that experienced by Vietnam veterans, who were told for years that that chronic health issues were not related to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
He said VA forces Gulf War veterans to try to link their conditions to the war when "VA knows that you cannot pin down exact cause when you have a multi-toxin environment, which is exactly what you had with the Gulf War."
The VA has relied on work from the Institute of Medicine, or IOM, in deciding how to handle Gulf War Illness, and Weidman said IOM appears predisposed to seeing the illness as psychological.
During a meeting last month the IOM Gulf War panel recommended no further research into Gulf War Illness, said Weidman, who attended the meeting. He said half the member panel, along with the chair, is made up of psychologists and psychiatrists and the other by research scientists.
Weidman said IOM should be conducting an epidemiology study comparing Gulf War veterans in certain military occupational specialties with troops in the same job who did not deploy to the war, as well as civilians with no military background.
Brown said there has been 20 years of studies, though he does not know if one suggested by Weidman has been carried out.