Last updated: April 21. 2014 10:59AM - 573 Views
Thomas Crisp Contributing Columnist

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In 2008, VA established a presumption of service connection for ALS for any veteran who develops the disease at any time after separation from service, making them eligible for monthly VA disability compensation benefits. VA amended its disability rating scale in January 2012 to assign a 100 percent disability evaluation for any veteran who has service-connected ALS.

VA adapted its rules so veterans with service-connected ALS no longer have to file multiple claims with VA for increased benefits as their condition progresses. Prior to the new SAH regulatory change, many veterans and service members who were rated by VA for service connected ALS, but who did not yet have symptoms debilitating enough to affect their mobility to the degree required for SAH grant eligibility, were unable to begin the process of modifying their homes to accommodate their often rapidly progressing conditions.

VA’s SAH program provides grants to eligible service-connected disabled veterans and service members for the purpose of constructing or modifying a home to meet their unique housing needs. The ultimate goal of the program is to provide a barrier-free living environment that affords a level of independent living that the veteran or service member may not otherwise enjoy. Visit http://benefits.va.gov/homeloans/adaptedhousing.asp for more information.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) wants the Veterans Affairs Department to make a rare lung disease found in some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans service-connected, meaning having the condition automatically would rate compensation and care from VA. Rep. Bishop wrote VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on March 12, urging him to designate constrictive bronchiolitis a service-connected condition. The Social Security Administration in 2012 added the condition to its “compassionate allowances” list, meaning it is among conditions expedited through the claims process because they are “so serious they obviously meet disability standards,” according to the administration.

Constrictive bronchiolitis, also called obliterative bronchiolitis or bronchiolitis obliterans, is characterized by the narrowing or obstruction of the lung’s smallest airways, the bronchioles, by scarring or fibrous tissue. At least 38 troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a number exposed to fumes from a sulfur mine fire near Mosul, Iraq, in 2003, have been definitively diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis.

But more could have the disease. Since diagnosis only can be confirmed by a surgical lung biopsy, which many military physicians believe is too invasive, and the illness bears similarities to other conditions like asthma and exercise-induced bronchospasms, determining its prevalence among troops has been difficult.

Some veterans experiencing respiratory problems following combat deployments blame the military’s use of open-air burn pits. The pits operated around the clock and were used to incinerate waste ranging from plastics and Styrofoam to batteries, body parts, ordnance and petroleum products, according to military sources.

Citing studies including a 2011 one by the Institute of Medicine that concluded there is not enough evidence to link burn pits with troops’ respiratory problems, the VA remains firm that burn-pit use did not result in long-term health problems. Under a congressional mandate, however, it is developing a registry for veterans exposed to burn-pit fumes and other airborne hazards to document their exposure and health issues. Legislation requiring VA to establish a registry was signed in January 2013 but VA is months late in implementing a plan.

Two U.S. senators insisted March 18 that Veterans Affairs Secretary Erik Shinseki reveal why his agency is nearly three months late in creating a legally-mandated registry of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans potentially poisoned — some lethally — by exposure to toxic trash-fire trenches.

“In an effort to address this failure, we ask that you provide Congress with information on the current status of the Open Air Burn Pit Registry, an accounting of problems that have arisen during the development of the registry, detailed information on remaining benchmarks to be completed before the Open Air Burn Pit Registry will become fully operational, and any information on how Congress can help to expedite the implementation of this critical program,” the letter stated.

The so-called “burn pits,” scattered throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, spewed acrid smoke while breaking down damaged Humvees, ordnance, mattresses, rocket launchers, and even amputated body parts. Some were ignited by jet fuel. Perhaps the largest such dump was in Balad, Iraq, spanning the length of 10 football fields. The plumes produced have been dubbed “this generation’s Agent Orange.”

On Jan. 10, 2013, President Barack Obama signed a law giving the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs one year to create and maintain the Open Air Burn Pit Registry, meant to identify and monitor veterans who inhaled the pollutants. The VA also was directed to later report its findings to Congress.

“While the necessity for some delay is understandable, the VA has failed to adequately explain why the delay has occurred, which steps remain to be completed before the registry is available for the use of our veterans, and provide specific information on when the registry is expected to be completed,” wrote Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Tom Udall (D-NM). “This delay is deeply concerning…the lack of urgency and communication from the VA is even more troubling.”

The registry’s launch has been postponed to spring 2014 to allow adequate time to develop and test the system’s software and hardware as well as to ensure data security and accessibility, said Victoria Dillon, a VA spokeswoman. Once the index goes live, veterans can join without being enrolled in VA health care, Dillon said, adding the agency “encourages all veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, and the Gulf War to participate.”

Dillon added that veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti and the 1991 Persian Gulf War can sign up now for a Defense Department Self-Service Logon, or DS-Logon at a DoD website to prepare for the registry launch.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to caring for veterans who have lung and other health conditions possibly related to their deployment,” Dillon said. Meanwhile, veterans groups are unsure how many troops were exposed or have fallen ill due to inhaling the vapors. A private, veteran-run website, BurnPits360.org, lists 16 Iraq and Afghanistan vets who served near the dumps and later died from a variety of cancers and lung ailments.

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