By Stephen Spotswood
WASHINGTON — Continuing a pattern of easing the way for Gulf War veterans to seek care and compensation, VA has extended the presumptive period for them to file claims for benefits for previously undiagnosed illnesses.
The change comes even as VA is reexamining how to support and improve services for this veteran population.
With the threat of chemical weapons, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division wear rain suits, gloves and M-17A1 protective masks to try to acclimate their bodies to the heat of Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield. DoD photo.
Under long-standing VA rules, any undiagnosed illnesses used to establish eligibility for VA benefits by veterans of the Persian Gulf War must have become apparent by Dec. 31, 2011. The new deadline adds five years, extending it to Dec. 31, 2016.
“When there is uncertainty about the connection between a medical problem and military service, veterans are entitled to the benefit of the doubt,” said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki after VA’s announcement of the deadline change.
This rule change affects about 700,000 troops deployed in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. VA puts the number of those troops diagnosed with multi-symptom illness, commonly called Gulf War Illness, between 25% and 35%, although it could be higher.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of 3,000 Gulf War veterans in 1998 found that 39% had mild or moderate multi-symptom illness, while about 6% had severe multi-symptom illness. The chronic symptoms exhibited in Gulf War patients with multi-symptom illness include: fatigue, depression, memory or concentration problems, moodiness, anxiety, insomnia and musculoskeletal problems.
Other studies have found that Gulf War veterans experience a higher rate of other chronic conditions, including sinusitis, gastritis, dermatitis, arthritis, unexplained pain and gastrointestinal issues. In August, VA made it easier for Gulf War veterans with gastrointestinal disorders to apply for service-connected benefits.
Veterans’ advocates have expressed approval of the move by VA to loosen regulations; however, some question the need for a deadline.
“We want Congress to give these veterans an indefinite extension,” said Verna Jones, director of the American Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division. “Their opportunity to file VA disability claims should not be tied to a specific date.”
Last year, the American Legion passed a resolution urging congress to indefinitely extend the presumptive period of service connection for Gulf War veterans with undiagnosed illnesses.
|118th Military Police Company detail filling sandbags, XVIII Airborne Corps Main Command Post, Rafha Airport, Northern Province, Saudi Arabia, 5 February 1991, XVIII Airborne Corps History Office photograph by SPC Randall R. Anderson, DS-F- 151-04.|
Examining Gulf War Care
VA has spent the past two years examining its treatment of Gulf War veterans. In 2009, Shinseki ordered a comprehensive review of VA’s programs supporting Gulf War veterans and established the Gulf War Illnesses Task Force (GWI-TF), which was given the job of making evaluations and recommendations.
A draft version of the most recent report by the task force was released in October and opened to public comment.
During the 30-day comment period, visitors to an online board posted 450 comments related to Gulf War care and services, and many more voted on which comments were most important and relevant. VA will analyze those comments and incorporate what they learn into the report, which was due to be published in January.
Results from the task force’s work can already be seen, however. The GWI-TF has developed a prototype for a networked Gulf War Clinic, which is being set up at the Salt Lake City VA Medical Center (SLCVAMC).
The clinic will link Gulf War subject matter experts and clinical specialists with primary-care providers to provide better care for Gulf War patients. The project also will include teaching aids, referral networks and other types of collaboration.
The idea behind the pilot project is that, while VA has a network of specialized healthcare services, the system lacks formal communication. According to the task force, the program at SLCVAMC will leverage the patient-aligned care teams (PACT) concept that VA has been implementing during the past two years.
Over the next two years, VA will track how the project impacts veterans’ satisfaction, with Gulf War veterans treated at SLCVAMC being asked at regular intervals whether their providers were able to answer questions directly related to their Gulf War illnesses. Similarly, the department will ask hospital providers and trainees whether they can confidently answer questions about a patient’s Gulf War service.
The early stages of the project went live in early October. Reports about the success of the program are expected in February 2012 and July 2012.
Legislation that would streamline VA’s community care programs into one program and expand VA’s caregiver program to veterans of all eras was signed into law earlier this month..
The good news from a recent consultant study is that, overall, the VA healthcare system is generally equal or better than others when inpatient and outpatient quality is measured.