The Department of Veterans Affairs will soon start processing claims for three new presumptive illnesses linked to exposure to herbicides in Vietnam and elsewhere. It also plans to automatically review all previous claims and denials for the conditions, VA officials said Thursday.
According to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, the department in coming weeks will issue a policy to implement a law that added bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism -- or Parkinson's-like symptoms -- to the list of conditions considered linked to Agent Orange exposure.
Veterans with a listed condition have an expedited process for receiving health care and benefits from the VA.
The National Defense Authorization Act, approved Jan. 1, added the three conditions to the list of diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange and other defoliants used during the Vietnam War.
Veterans whose claims are approved may receive an earlier date for entitlement to benefits -- a decision that could result in more compensation.
"Many of our Nation's Veterans have waited a long time for these benefits," said McDonough. "VA will not make them wait any longer. This is absolutely the right thing to do for Veterans and their families."
The department plans to automatically review previously denied claims and will notify those veterans or their survivors via mail.
According to McDonough, benefits could be extended to roughly 52,000 veterans and 6,000 surviving family members "in the first year alone."
"This means that any Vietnam veteran suffering from one of these three new conditions can now file and receive benefits and care and, consistent with [a court ruling, Nehmer v. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs], their survivors who previously filed and those who were denied benefits will have their cases automatically reviewed," he said.
VA officials could not provide a timeline for adjudicating claims and providing benefits. They said the department is looking at ways to accelerate claims processing and has been chipping away at a claims backlog. As of this week, the backlog is 190,000 claims, down from 211,000 in January, according to McDonough.
He has said that veterans should file claims for illnesses they believe are service-connected even if the conditions aren't listed as presumed to be related to service.
"Oftentimes, the absence of a presumption serves as a disincentive for an individual vet to come forward with her claim, which obviously speaks to a trust issue we have on the claims process," McDonough said in late March. "So the first thing I'd say is ... if [veterans] have a claim ... please come forward with it."
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.