Special Rules For Certain Claims
Congress, and in some cases VA, has recognized that some conditions resulting from service are so widespread or unique that they require special procedures. Two of the most common of these conditions, herbicide exposure in Vietnam Era veterans and undiagnosed or multisymptom illnesses in Persian Gulf War veterans, are described below.
Congress has established a “presumption” of exposure to herbicides, most infamously including “Agent Orange,” for veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during the period from January 9, 1962, to May 7, 1975. A presumption is a legal term that means that VA has to assume a fact unless there is evidence against the fact. For Vietnam veterans this means that evidence of actual exposure Agent Orange is not required those veterans is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange if they meet the requirements for the presumption.
For claimants, this means that if a veteran can show he or she was in Vietnam during the specific period and currently has a medical condition listed in VA regulations as being caused by Agent Orange which began within the listed time periods, VA must service connect that condition. Conditions that are presumptively service-connected for herbicide exposure include chloracne, Type 2 diabetes (also know as Type II diabetes mellitus or adult-onset diabetes), Hodgkin’s disease, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, B cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, and ischemic heart disease. Other presumptive conditions are listed, so a Vietnam veteran with a health condition should review the entire list. [link to CFR]
Just who is eligible for the herbicide presumption has been the topic of extensive debate and litigation. As it currently stands, having earned a Vietnam Service Medal is not enough to obtain the presumption. A veteran must show that he or she put “boots on the ground” in Vietnam or have been a “brown water” (inland waters) sailor to qualify. A single layover or shore leave is enough to receive the presumption. In addition, some veterans with service in Korea are also eligible for the presumption. For veterans with service in Thailand the key to claims for exposure are military duties that took the veteran out to and alongside the perimeter of bases where defoliants were acknowledged to have been used. Such duties include dog handling, security, and some maintenance activities.
Many veterans have challenged this definition, especially “blue water” (open ocean) sailors and Air Force ground support personnel who believe that they were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides during service. VA, backed by the courts, will not apply the presumption unless they have evidence of “boots on the ground” from these veterans. Air Force members and reservist who served
On June 19th, 2015 the Federal Register published that Air Force Servicemembers and Air Force Reservists who served during the period of 1969 through 1986 and whose service required that they regularly and repeatedly operate, maintain, or serve onboard C-123 aircraft that was exposed to Agent Orange are now eligible for VA disability compensation for presumptive conditions due to Agent Orange Exposure.
In addition, any veteran who believes that he or she was exposed to a herbicide can file a claim and attempt to show actual herbicide exposure. This can be done by providing evidence of actual exposure, such as photographs showing Agent Orange barrels. In addition, veterans who served in other locations, such as Guam, have occasionally been able to show actual exposure although the government does not officially acknowledge Agent Orange was stored or used in those locations.
A unique aspect of Agent Orange claims is the possible retroactive assignment of effective dates. A series of court orders in the class-action litigation in Nehmer v. United States Department of Veterans Affairs, requires VA in certain cases to make an award effective on the date of the claimant’s application or the date of a previously-denied application, even if such date is earlier than the effective date of the regulation establishing the presumption. In other words, the Nehmer case created an exception to the rules for calculating effective dates and requires VA to assign retroactive effective dates for certain awards of disability compensation and DIC.
Another result of the Nehmer case is that if an individual was entitled to retroactive benefits as a result of the court orders but died prior to receiving such payment, VA must pay the entire amount of the retroactive payments to the veteran’s estate, regardless of any statutory limits on payment of benefits following a veteran’s death. Veterans and surviving spouses, dependent children, and dependent parents of veterans with service in Vietnam who previously filed claims for conditions associated with herbicide exposure should carefully review current VA regulations to determine if they are eligible for retroactive benefits.
Polytraumatic Injuries Requiring Specialized Rehab
Recent combat has resulted in new patterns of polytraumatic injuries and disability requiring specialized intensive rehabilitation processes and coordination of care throughout the course of recovery and rehabilitation. While serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), military service members are sustaining multiple severe injuries as a result of explosions and blasts. Improvised explosive devices, blasts, landmines, and fragments account for 65 percent of combat injuries (see subpar. 17a). Congress recognized this newly emerging pattern of military injuries with the passage of Public Law 108-422, Section 302, and Public Law 108-447.
Combat injuries are often the result of a blast. Blasts cause injuries through multiple mechanisms. Severe blasts can result in total body disruptions and death to those closest to the blast site or they can result in burns and inhalation injuries. Blast injuries typically are divided into four categories: primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary or miscellaneous injuries.
1. Primary Blast Injuries. Primary blast injuries are caused by overpressure to gas- containing organ systems, with most frequent injury to the lung, bowel, and inner ear (tympanic membrane rupture). These exposures may result in traumatic limb or partial limb amputation.
2. Secondary Blast Injuries. Secondary blast injuries occur via fragments and other missiles, which can cause head injuries and soft tissue trauma.
3. Tertiary Blast injuries. Tertiary Blast injuries result from displacement of the whole body by combinedpressure loads (shock wave and dynamic overpressure).
4. Miscellaneous Blast-related Injuries. These are miscellaneous blast-related injuries such as burns and crush injuries from collapsed structures and displaced heavy objects. Soft tissue injuries, fractures, and amputations are common.
Animal models of blast injury have demonstrated damaged brain tissue and consequent cognitive deficits. Indeed, the limited data available suggests that brain injuries are a common occurrence fromblast injuries and often go undiagnosed and untreated as attention is focused on more “visible” injuries. A significant number of casualties sustain emotional shock and may develop PTSD. Individuals may sustain multiple injuries from one or more of these mechanisms. Explosions can produce unique patterns of injury seldom seen outside combat.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Classification of Blast Injuries
Auditory or Vestibular
Tympanic membrane rupture, ossicular disruption, cochlear damage, foreign body, hearing loss, distorted hearing, tinnitus, earache, dizziness, sensitivity to noise.
Eye, Orbit or Face
Perforated globe, foreign body, air embolism, fractures.
Blast lung, hemothorax, pneumothorax, pulmonary contusion and hemorrhage, atrioventricular fistula (source of air embolism), airway epithelial damage, aspiration pneumonitis, sepsis.
Bowel perforation, hemorrhage, ruptured liver or spleen, mesenteric ischemia from air embolism, sepsis, peritoneal irritation, rectal bleeding.
Cardiac contusion, myocardial infarction from air embolism, shock, vasovagal hypotension, peripheral vascular injury, air embolism-induced injury.
Central Nervous System
Concussion, closed or open brain injury, petechial hemorrhage, edema, stroke, small blood vessel rupture, spinal cord injury, air embolism- induced injury, hypoxia or anoxia, diffuse axonal injury.
Renal and/or Urinary Tract
Renal contusion, laceration, acute renal failure due to rhabdomyolysis, hypotension, hypovolemia.
Traumatic amputation, fractures, crush injuries, burns, cuts, lacerations, infections, acute arterial occlusion, air embolism-induced injury.
Crush injuries, burns, infections, slow healing wounds.
Emotional or Psychological
Acute stress reactions, PTSD, survivor guilt, post-concussion syndrome, depression, generalized anxiety disorder.
Acute pain from wounds, crush injuries, or traumatic amputations; chronic pain syndromes.
Recognizing the specialized clinical care needs of individuals sustaining multiple severe injuries, VA has established four PRCs. The PRC mission is to provide comprehensive inpatient rehabilitation services for individuals with complex physical, cognitive and mental health sequelae of severe and disabling trauma, to provide medical and surgical support for ongoing and/or new conditions, and to provide support to their families. Intensive clinical and social work case management services are essential to coordinate the complex components of care for polytrauma patients and their families. Coordination of rehabilitation services must occur seamlessly as the patient moves from acute hospitalization through acute rehabilitation and ultimately back to the patient’s home community. Transition to the home community may include a transfer from a PRC to a less acute facility.
The Secretary of Veterans Affairs designated five PRCs, co-located with TBI Lead Centers, at VA Medical Centers in Richmond, VA; Tampa, FL; Minneapolis, MN; San Antonio, TX, and Palo Alto, CA (see App. A). It is VHA policy that the PRCs provide a full-range of care for all patients eligible for VA care, who have sustained varied patterns of severe and disabling injuries including, but not limited to: TBI, amputation, visual and hearing impairment, spinal cord injury (SCI), musculoskeletal injuries, wounds, and psychological trauma. Due to the medical complexity of these patients, PRCs must be prepared to admit individuals who may have a higher level of medical acuity and require interdisciplinary management by various medical specialists. The general admission criteria to the PRC include:
1.The individual with polytrauma is an eligible veteran or an active duty military service member; and
2.The individual has sustained multiple physical, cognitive, and/or emotional impairments secondary to trauma; and
3.The individual has the potential to benefit from inpatient rehabilitation; or
4.The individual has the potential to benefit from a transitional community re-entry program; or
5.The individual requires an initial comprehensive rehabilitation evaluation and care plan.
It is recommended that all patients experiencing a polytraumatic injury be referred to a VA PRC. The PRC team has specialized expertise to determine the most appropriate setting for care. If the patient does not require admission to a PRC, the team can assist with coordination of care at the most appropriate facility. Referral to a PRC also ensures that the patient and family are integrated into the VA system of care with the appropriate rehabilitation services. NOTE: The SCI Chief for the applicable region needs to be contacted by the PRC admissions clinical case manager to consult on the transfer of patients with a diagnosis of TBI and SCI.
Referrals to the PRC must be given the highest priority and the screening process needs to be expedited to ensure that there are no delays in transferring a patient to the Center. The PRC must accept admissions on a 24/7 basis. To establish the medical needs and acuity of the patient, there is a need to review medical documentation, consult with the referring treatment provider, and coordinate a plan for transfer.
Referral of service members with polytrauma to a PRC is initiated by DOD, typically by the MTF social worker or case manager, or other DOD representative. Where assigned, the VA- DOD liaison social worker is actively involved in the referral process, facilitating communications, information exchange, transition of care, and family support. The PRC’s admissions clinical case manager coordinates the referral and screening process for the accepting VA PRC. NOTE: For those referral sources that do not have VA-DOD liaisons, admission screening is to be coordinated between the PRC admission clinical case manager and the MTF.
Points of Contact
VA Polytrauma Points of Contact are available at 39 VAMCs without specialized rehabilitation teams. These Points of Contact, established in 2007, are knowledgeable about the VA Polytrauma/TBI System of care and coordinate case management and referrals throughout the system and may provide a more limited range of rehabilitation services. See a full list of Polytrauma Points of Contact in the attached PDF.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is now included in a new chapter in DSM-5 on Trauma and Stressor Related Disorders. In the DSM-IV PTSD was addressed as an Anxiety disorder.
The diagnostic criteria for the manual’s next edition identify the trigger to PTSD as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation. The exposure must result from one or more of the following scenarios, in which the individual:
- – directly experiences the traumatic event;
- – witnesses the traumatic event in person;
- – learns that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend (with the actual or threatened death being either violent or accidental); or
- – experiences first-hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (not through media, pictures, television or movies unless work-related).
The disturbance, regardless of its trigger, causes clinically significant distress or impairment in the individual’s social interactions, capacity to work or other important areas of functioning. It is not the physiological result of another medical condition, medication, drugs or alcohol.
DSM-5 pays more attention to the behavioral symptoms that accompany PTSD and proposes 4 distinct diagnostic clusters instead of 3. They are described as re-experiencing, avoidance, negative cognitions and mood and arousal.
Re-experiencing covers spontaneous memories of the traumatic event, recurrent dreams related to it, flashbacks or other intense or prolonged psychological distress. Avoidance refers to distressing memories, thoughts, feelings or external reminders of the event.
Negative cognitions and mood represents myriad feelings, from a persistent and distorted sense of blame of self or others, to estrangement from others or markedly diminished interest in activities, to an inability to remember key aspects of the event.
Finally, arousal is marked by aggressive, reckless or self-destructive behavior, sleep disturbances, hyper-vigilance or related problems. The current manual emphasizes the “flight” aspect associated with PTSD; the criteria of DSM-5 also account for the “fight” reaction often seen.
The number of symptoms that must be identified depends on the cluster. DSM-5 would only require that a disturbance continue for more than a month and would eliminate the distinction between acute and chronic phases of PTSD.
PTSD Debate within the Military
Certain military leaders, both active and retired, believe the word “disorder” makes many soldiers who are experiencing PTSD symptoms reluctant to ask for help. They have urged a change to rename the disorder posttraumatic stress injury, a description that they say is more in line with the language of troops and would reduce stigma.
But others believe it is the military environment that needs to change, not the name of the disorder, so that mental health care is more accessible and soldiers are encouraged to seek it in a timely fashion. Some attendees at the 2012 APA Annual Meeting, where this was discussed in a session, also questioned whether injury is too imprecise a word for a medical diagnosis.
In DSM-5, PTSD will continue to be identified as a disorder.
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