VA Extends Undiagnosed Illness Presumptive Period Through 2016
On October 16, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) published final regulations (RIN 2900-AO09) extending the deadline for the presumptive period for undiagnosed illnesses for Gulf War veterans until December 31, 2016.
This is great news for the estimated 250,000 ill Gulf War veterans who remain without treatments for their war-related conditions. VA followed science by extending the presumptive time period. However, VA still doesn’t get it right because VA excludes many important geographic locations where toxic exposures remain widespread since 1990.
Why this Regulation Was Needed
Starting in August 1990, with our first deployment of troops to Southwest Asia, Gulf War veterans returning home flooded VA hospitals seeking medical care for a variety of unexplained conditions. Many died waiting for care. Some committed suicide, distraught at VA’s refusals and delays.
A number of legislative efforts in the early 1990s resulted in the passage in 1994 of “Veterans Benefits Improvement Act” (PL 103-446). The law authorized VA to compensate veterans who were sick, but did not have a clear diagnosis. Once service-connected and compensated by VA, the veterans received free VA medical care, the main goal of the sick veterans. The new and unique presumptive period ended after two years.
Congress and later VA extended the presumptive period several times. VA’s final regulation published this week extends the deadline through December 31, 2016. In order to qualify for disability benefits and free healthcare under this regulation, the illness must manifest itself by the end of 2016. The conditions are listed here and here.
Who Is Affected?
VA’s final regulation applies to Gulf War Veterans who served on active duty from August 2, 1990, to the present and deployed to any of the following locations: Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and the airspace above those locations.
One mistake never corrected by VA was the exclusion of Turkey and Israel, both considered part of the Gulf War by the Department of Defense, but not by VA. Veterans with DD214s marked with “Gulf War” receive benefits under the final regulation. However, Veterans who deployed to the Gulf War who have a DD214 marked “Turkey” do not quality.
There is good news and bad news for our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. One important point: under the law, the only current period of war is the “Persian Gulf War,” a conflict that began on August 2, 1990, and continues through the present. There is no official period of war for the second invasion of Iraq or the on-going war in Afghanistan.
Here’s the good news. VA makes it clear Veterans who served in Iraq and Kuwait (plus all the other nations listed above) from 1990 through the present are covered by the regulations. This means Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn veterans are eligible.
And now the bad news. VA refused requests by advocates to add Veterans who deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and nearby locations) who suffered the same toxic exposures. VA’s weak and unacceptable reasoning? “Further, any suggestions to expand the types of service to which the statute and regulation apply are beyond the scope of this rulemaking. Therefore, we make no changes based on these comments.”
Why should OEF/OIF veterans be concerned about VA’s final regulations? In September 2012, VA reported 437,114 Post-9/11 war veterans are diagnosed by VA medical professionals with “Symptoms, Signs and Ill Defined Conditions.”
Excluding Turkey, Israel, Afghanistan, and Pakistan remains a serious flaw in VA’s new regulations that VA should fix now.