VA Moves to Expedite Benefits for Post-9/11 Veterans' Asthma, Respiratory Problems

A U.S. service member guards a burn pit as  flames rise into the sky behind him in Iraq.
A U.S. service member watches over the civilian fire fighters at the burn pit as smoke and flames rise into the night sky behind him in Fallujah, Iraq on May 25th, 2007. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Samuel Corum)

The Department of Veterans Affairs will create a list of conditions thought to be linked to burn pits and other air-quality problems experienced by veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since the Persian Gulf War.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced Thursday that the department will start the rulemaking process to add chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma and sinusitis to a list of presumptive illnesses considered linked to service.

The move comes after an internal VA review "resulted in the recommendation to consider creation of new presumptions," based on existing reports and scientific evidence, he said.

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"VA is establishing a holistic approach to determining toxic exposure presumption going forward. We are moving out smartly in initiating action to consider these and other potential new presumptions, grounded in science and in keeping with my authority as secretary of VA," McDonough said.

Rulemaking is the first step in ensuring that affected veterans have an easier time receiving approval for certain conditions. McDonough said the initial list includes asthma, sinusitis and rhinitis, but more could be added as the VA obtains additional information.

"This is just the beginning of our efforts to help vets suffering from toxic exposure. … This is an urgent ongoing process," he said.

Establishing federal policy by rulemaking is a lengthy process that can in some cases take years. McDonough promised that the VA would approach the process as an "urgent matter."

"It breaks all of our hearts that we have veterans who suffer. It makes me particularly sad that we have veterans with terminal diagnoses," he said.

Congress is considering a massive health care package for veterans with illnesses caused by exposure to pollutants. Both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees are working on legislation that would provide health care and disability compensation for those sickened by burn pits and other environmental toxins during their military service.

The VA estimates 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits, which were acres-wide and used to dispose of waste in combat zones. The department historically has maintained that the science is unclear on the link between conditions such as cancer and breathing in burn pit fumes for months at a time, although McDonough now says the department is looking at reports not only from the National Academies of Sciences but also across the research spectrum.

The VA also announced Thursday it will begin processing claims for new presumptive conditions linked to exposure to herbicides used in Vietnam and elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s.

McDonough said the department will implement provisions of a law passed earlier this year that added bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism, or Parkinson's-like symptoms, to the list of presumptive conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure.

"Many of our nation's veterans have waited a long time for these benefits," he said. "VA will not make them wait any longer."

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: VA Secretary Wants More Vets Sickened by Burn Pits to File Claims, But Many Are Still Being Turned Away

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