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Senators push VA to fix problems with vets’ toxic exposure claims

A group of Senate Democrats is imploring Veterans Affairs officials to fix how they handle constrictive bronchiolitis and hypertension claims under new toxic exposure benefits legislation, saying that too many veterans are left without help due to confusing department rules.

In a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough on Monday, 18 senators — led by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. — said the issues need to be addressed quickly to ensure that thousands of veterans receive the compensation they deserve.

“Veterans have waited decades for benefits and recognitions for health conditions related to their toxic exposure,” the group wrote. “Outdated VA regulations should not deny them earned benefits.”

The problem relates to the PACT Act, legislation passed in 2022 which dramatically expanded veterans’ eligibility for disability benefits related to injuries from military toxins like chemical defoliants and burn pit smoke.

Over the last 20 months, the department has accepted nearly 900,000 claims under the legislation, an approval rate of about 75%. But individuals filing claims related to constrictive bronchiolitis or hypertension continue to struggle to navigate the system.

During testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, McDonough acknowledged a significant number of “0%, service-connected ratings” for veterans dealing with hypertension and said officials are looking into the issue.

Such ratings create an official record of a health issue in a veterans file but not not make them eligible for any compensation. Higher disability ratings can result in hundreds or thousands of dollars a month in financial support.

Senators said that advocates have told them that many hypertension claims are being rated as 0% or non-disabling because individuals are already managing the condition through prescriptions or other medical care.

“VA’s regulations require all hypertension diagnoses to be confirmed by readings taken two or more times on at least three different days,” they wrote. “Requiring veterans to locate blood readings from decades ago — or worse, incentivizing them to go off their medications — to prove they still have hypertension is overburdensome and dangerous.”

Veterans submitting constrictive bronchiolitis claims face a similar but separate problem. The respiratory illness is difficult to diagnose without an invasive procedure, and VA rules prohibit combining ratings from that condition with other respiratory problems. The result is often an effective 0% rating for that issue, despite the breathing problems it causes.

Earlier this month, Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs told PBS that officials are working on a fix for the constrictive bronchiolitis, but it may take until this fall.

In their letter, the senators said they want action sooner.

After Tuesday’s hearing, McDonough said that officials are looking into the concerns outlined in the letter but may need legislative action to help address them, particularly when it comes to the constrictive bronchiolitis issues.

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