The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to announce in 2022 whether some forms of cancer and a rare lung disorder seen in patients exposed to burn pits and other forms of pollution should entitle veterans to expedited benefits and disability compensation.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Thursday that the VA will announce "early next year" whether some cancers will be deemed as connected to military service, and for constrictive bronchiolitis -- a rare disease that affects the lungs' smallest passageways -- by summer 2022.
The White House announced on Veterans Day that it planned to improve the disability claims process for veterans with illnesses linked to toxic exposure, announcing several initiatives and plans to speed up reviews of exposure-related illnesses.
Veterans with injuries and illnesses connected to their military service are eligible for medical care and disability compensation from the VA.
But unless they have a condition that the VA has listed as officially linked, they must provide documents to support their claim that their illness is tied to serving in the military -- claims that are then compared with recommendations by a national advisory board based on existing, often scant, research.
The VA will now consider other sources of data when considering whether illnesses are related to military service, including its own research and how common the illnesses are among VA patients and veterans receiving disability compensation.
"It doesn't mean lowering the standards; it means increasing the aperture on the available science," McDonough said during a press conference with reporters.
In August, the VA designated three conditions -- asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis -- as illnesses caused by burn pit and air pollution exposure and therefore eligible for disability pay and health care.
According to McDonough, the VA has processed 6,900 claims for the three presumptive conditions to date, awarding $14 million to 4,682 veterans or their survivors.
VA expects eventually to receive 300,000 claims for those three conditions, McDonough added.
"This is only the beginning of our efforts, and we will keep moving ahead with urgency," McDonough said.
Burn pits have been used by the U.S. military for decades to destroy waste generated during overseas operations. According to a 2010 Government Accountability Report, more than 1,000 known toxins and carcinogens were burned in the pits, generated as the U.S. military and its contractors burned Styrofoam, plastics, tires, pesticide containers, batteries and medical waste.
More than 240,000 former service members have joined the VA's Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit registry. Those eligible for the registry include 3 million veterans who served overseas in designated locations starting on Aug. 2, 1990.
Regions and countries include Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Djibouti, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, waters of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea.
Prior to the announcement on the new presumptive diseases related to burn pits, 49% of veterans' claims for asthma, 55% of claims for sinusitis and 29% of those for rhinitis were rejected, according to the VA.
Roughly 65% of claims for environmental cancers filed by 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans also have been rejected.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime