The last year was an eventful one for veterans and the VA–from the pandemic’s enormous impact on veterans health and benefits to changes to presumptive conditions, the ratings schedule, and compensation rates.
Here is a roundup of notable news for veterans in 2021.
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In this article about VA and veterans news in 2021
- VA disability claims backlog grows
- VA continues COVID testing and vaccinations for veterans
- Veterans receive largest disability rate increase in a decade
- New presumptive conditions added
- Toxic exposures for veterans in the spotlight
- Second chance for vets with bad discharges
- LGBTQ veterans to receive benefits
- CPAP machines issued by VA recalled
- Widows’ benefits rule modified
- Changes to VA disability diagnostic codes
- Veterans uneasy with U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan
- Other veterans news of note
- Our year at Woods and Woods
VA disability claims backlog grows
Many circumstances lead to a surge of backlogged veterans disability claims (cases more than 125 days old) and erased much of the progress the VA made in recent years to lower the caseload. The VA projected in October that the backlog would reach 260,000 pending claims.
The VA adopted multiple health and safety measures to protect employees and veterans from COVID-19, which ultimately slowed down the benefits process.
When the pandemic began in 2020, many in-person compensation and pension (C&P) exams were canceled, VA health care clinics switched to telehealth appointments, and all 56 VA regional offices were closed for in-person visits. Some in-person exams resumed in May 2020, but many VA health care facilities didn’t begin seeing patients in person until 2021.
The turnaround for requests for military personnel records, including DD 214s, slowed down when the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis decreased its on-site staffing as a pandemic precaution. In the last quarter of 2021, it was still operating with only 45% of its pre-pandemic workforce.
The appeals process
The new appeals process introduced nearly three years ago, has proven slower than everyone hoped.
Much of the blame has been placed on heavy caseloads and fewer attorneys at the Board of Veterans Appeals. But those issues seem to be related to how the process, known as AMA, is designed. Unlike the old system, called Legacy, veterans who appeal under AMA have the option to go directly to the BVA after their claim is denied. Many veterans are choosing that route, which has ultimately shifted the caseload (and the backlog) from the VA regional offices to the BVA.
Meanwhile, the VA announced that it would also miss its 2022 deadline to clear all cases under the legacy appeals system.
The VA responded by hiring 2,000 new employees and using American Rescue Plan funds for overtime pay. It also pulled funds from the 2022 budget to help process Agent Orange presumptive claims and C&P claims.
VA continues COVID testing and vaccinations for veterans
VA facilities gave more than 6 million COVID tests, documented more than 405,000 positive cases, and tracked more than 17,000 COVID deaths.
More than 4.3 million people were fully vaccinated at a VA facility. The VA also required all its employees to be vaccinated by Nov. 22, 2021, but postponed any action against staff who refused vaccines until early 2022.
VA health care facilities continue to offer COVID-19 testing and vaccines for veterans and their spouses and caregivers.
Veterans receive largest disability rate increase in a decade
The VA disability compensation rates increased 5.9%. Veterans will see the change in their monthly checks during 2022.
The larger-than-usual increase coincides with a Social Security cost-of-living adjustment, which was significantly higher because of rising inflation.
Congress voted to tie the VA benefits increase to the annual Social Security increase for this year only.
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(Veteran with no dependents)
|2022 Monthly Payment (Veteran with no dependents)|
New presumptive conditions added
The VA announced changes to benefits related to Agent Orange exposure, Gulf War Syndrome, and toxic exposures to burn pits.
Blue Water Navy
The agency also announced that it would re-adjudicate claims for Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans. The move came two years after the passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which required the VA to reconsider previously-denied Agent Orange claims from veterans who served in the offshore waters of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
Gulf War Syndrome
The VA extended a benefits deadline for veterans with Gulf War Syndrome.
Persian Gulf War veterans who develop a qualifying condition that is rated at least 10% before the end of 2026 as a result of military service can receive disability benefits.
The presumptive period for these conditions was previously set to expire at the end of 2021.
The VA acknowledged the first-ever presumptive conditions related to burn pits. The agency announced in August that it would begin processing claims for asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis for service members stationed in the Southwest Asia theater of operations beginning Aug. 2, 1990, through the present, or in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, or Djibouti from Sept. 19, 2001, to the present.
Toxic exposures for veterans in the spotlight
The VA’s announcements about new presumptive conditions related to Agent Orange and burn pits are part of a larger effort to address military toxic exposures.
Many veterans and veterans advocates argue that the burn pit presumptive conditions list should be expanded to include certain cancers and lung disorders. The issue received much attention late in the year:
- President Biden on Veterans’ Day ordered a 90-day review of the link between burn pits and cancer.
- The VA launched a pilot program for rare respiratory cancers in November. It has the potential to change the process for establishing presumptive conditions related to toxic exposures. The program runs through April 2022.
- In December, Biden signed the defense spending bill which included the expansion of the burn pit registry to include Syria and Egypt.
The federal government also stepped up efforts to address so-called “forever chemicals” (PFAS), which have been identified on many military bases. One of the sources is firefighting foam, which is the subject of several ongoing lawsuits. When ingested (usually through drinking water) the chemicals don’t break down and permanently remain in a person’s body. Many studies have examined the link between prolonged PFAS exposure and certain types of cancer.
Many Air Force Bases have begun PFAS cleanup efforts. The Biden administration is pushing the EPA to set PFAS limits for drinking water. And Congress is considering two bills–one in the House and one in the Senate –that would expand benefits for veterans exposed to PFAS.
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Second chance for vets with bad discharges
The U.S. Army and Navy began reviewing more than a decade of “bad paper” discharges last year. The decisions came when the branches settled separate lawsuits from veterans who said their discharge statuses were related to PTSD and other trauma-related conditions.
The Navy will review discharge status upgrade applications made between March 2, 2012, and the effective date of the court settlement. The review affects Navy and Marine Corps veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq era who were partially or fully denied an upgrade request.
The Army will review all other-than-honorable discharges since April 17, 2011, which include an estimated 3,500 active-duty, Reserve, and National Guard troops.
LGBTQ veterans to receive benefits
The VA announced in September that LGBTQ veterans who were given bad discharges under the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy will now be considered for VA disability benefits.
Nearly 14,000 service members who were dismissed from the military because of the policy were ineligible for VA health care, disability compensation, home loans, and burial benefits.
CPAP machines issued by VA recalled
Phillips Respironics, a major manufacturer of CPAPs and BiPAP machines, announced a recall of 4 million machines in June. The foam liners contain a material that can degrade into particles small enough to inhale or ingest, and the foam can off-gas toxic chemicals.
The VA has distributed approximately 300,000 of these machines to veterans with sleep apnea. If you have used any of the affected machines and developed an illness, you may be eligible for compensation.
Widows’ benefits rule modified
A law that went into effect at the beginning of 2021 relaxed a rule for spouses receiving VA survivors benefits. A person who receives Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) can continue receiving the benefit if they remarry at or after age 55. The previous remarriage rule was age 57.
Changes to VA disability diagnostic codes
The VA updated the ratings criteria for musculoskeletal and muscle injuries and genitourinary and cardiovascular systems in the last year. The agency renamed conditions, removed obsolete language, and added conditions that did not previously have diagnostic codes.
Claims pending before the effective date of the changes will be considered under both the old and new rating criteria and “whichever criteria is more favorable to the veteran will be applied.” Claims filed on or after the effective date will be rated under the new criteria.
Veterans uneasy with U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan left many veterans feeling like their mission was not accomplished and asking what their service in the country meant.
According to a recent report called “After Kabul: Veterans, America, and the End of the War in Afghanistan,” 70% of veterans agreed with the statement “America did not leave Afghanistan with honor,” and 81% of Afghanistan veterans felt disappointed about the withdrawal.
The VA offered a list of ways to support Afghanistan veterans and their families.
Other veterans news of note
- President Biden appointed Denis McDonough as the VA secretary early last year. He is the second non-veteran to hold that office.
- The VA received $17 billion in pandemic relief. In addition to vaccine distribution and personal protective equipment, the agency used it for veterans’ health care, expanding telehealth, and aid for homeless veterans. An additional $1 billion was used to waive veterans’ medical debts during the pandemic, and another $270 million went toward processing veterans’ claims for benefits.
- The VA resumed collection of disability benefits overpayments in October. VA debt collections were suspended in April 2020 due to COVID.
- The VA began training specialists to handle Military Sexual Trauma claims. All MST claims are now being processed at five specific offices across the country.
- The VA launched the Reach Out campaign to prevent veteran suicides and raise awareness about VA mental health resources. It also introduced the 1 Step Today campaign that encourages veterans to take “one step at a time” toward a healthier life.
Our year at Woods and Woods
The employees at Woods and Woods answered calls, submitted new claims, and filed appeals on behalf of thousands of veterans in 2021.
Our staff worked remotely for nearly half the year because of COVID-19. Many of us returned to the office in June, while some of us continued working from home. The Woods and Woods staff is grateful to work for a firm that cares about our physical health and mental well-being so that we can continue to serve veterans for many years to come.
We wish you all peace and good health in 2022.