Under sweeping veterans legislation approved Wednesday by Congress, service members who contract COVID-19 while on duty and suffer disability or death as a result will be eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.
A provision in the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 designates COVID-19 as a presumptive illness -- a descriptor that paves the way for affected service members or veterans who suffer long-term consequences of the virus to receive compensation and benefits.
To be eligible for disability, the individual must have served on active duty for more than 48 hours at one time and developed the illness during service or within 14 days after the qualifying period of duty.
The department has the ability to decide whether a veteran qualifies should they develop COVID-19 after the 14-day time frame.
The benefit would apply to active-duty service members and Reserve members, as well as National Guardsmen on training duty under Title 10; activated Guard members serving on or after March 13; or those working full time during the national emergency as declared by the president.
It is unclear how many service members would be affected by the change, expected to be signed by President Donald Trump in the coming days.
Of the 14 service members who have died from COVID-19, two were on active duty -- Navy Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Thacker and Army Staff Sgt. Setariki Korovakaturaga -- and their families will rate benefits, according to the legislation.
Of the five members of the National Guard who have died, two were not activated at the time of their deaths or before. The duty status of the remaining three has not been made public.
Seven Reserve members have died, including six soldiers and one Navy sailor. Of those, two were confirmed not to have been on active duty at the time of their deaths or prior; the status of the remaining five has not been disclosed.
Of the 94,644 service members who have contracted COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak, 57,590 have recovered, according to Defense Department data published Dec. 16.
Nearly 880 have been hospitalized for the illness, an indication of a serious case of COVID-19 with the potential for long-term effects and, possibly, VA benefits.
In addition to the COVID-19 provisions, the legislation creates an Office of Women's Health within the VA and mandates that every VA hospital have a dedicated women's health provider. It includes a number of provisions to address sexual assault and harassment within the department, expands services for Native American and homeless veterans, and contains a number of education benefits measures.