When you enlisted and began your military journey, you may have already had injuries or health conditions. However, if your military service worsened those conditions, you might qualify for VA disability benefits through a service connection based on aggravation.
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In this article, we will explore what it means to have an aggravated service-connected disability, how health conditions can be aggravated by military service, the VA’s presumption of soundness and aggravation, and the process of filing a claim for an aggravated service-connected disability. Understanding eligibility for an aggravated condition can help veterans and their families receive the benefits they deserve.
In this article about aggravated service-connected disability:
- Service connection for VA disability
- What is an aggravated service-connected disability?
- VA ratings for aggravated service-connected disabilities
- What can I do if a service-connected condition worsens a non-service-connected condition?
- How Woods and Woods can help
Service connection for VA disability
Understanding how to connect health conditions to military service for VA benefits can be confusing. The good news is that the VA offers benefits for more situations than just direct service connection. One type of connection — a service connection through aggravation — covers pre-existing conditions worsened by military service.
What are the types of service connection?
A service connection through aggravation is just one of several types of links the VA uses to categorize disabilities that are eligible for VA benefits. Other types of service connection include direct, secondary, presumptive, and 1151 claims.
Direct service connection
Direct service connection is the most straightforward disability claim type. Veterans with a health condition caused by military service-related activities or environmental exposures during service are eligible for VA disability benefits through a direct service connection.
Secondary service connection
Sometimes direct service-connected disabilities can cause other health problems for veterans. Veterans with a condition caused or aggravated by another service-connected disability may be eligible for additional VA benefits through a secondary service connection. Mental health conditions are some of the most common disabilities with a secondary service connection.
Presumptive service connection
There are specific disabilities some veterans will be able to claim with a presumptive service connection. The VA presumes that specific disabilities diagnosed in veterans were caused by the unique circumstances of their service.
Veterans who develop certain health conditions within a year after leaving the service, those exposed to burn pits, those exposed to Agent Orange, and many more scenarios may be eligible for VA benefits on a presumptive basis.
When a veteran meets the criteria for a presumptive service connection, no additional evidence is needed to prove that military service was the cause of the disability.
Veterans with disabilities due to negligent VA care or treatment can file a Veterans Benefits Section 1151 claim. If the VA showed carelessness, negligence, lack of proper skill, or error in judgment during a veteran’s hospitalization, medical or surgical treatment, examination, therapy, vocational rehabilitation, or training, the disability would not be service connected, but the veteran could get VA benefit through an 1151 claim.
Finally, there are also claims based on aggravation.
What is an aggravated service-connected disability?
If you had a medical condition before joining the military, you might believe that condition doesn’t qualify for disability benefits. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Federal code defines a disability as being aggravated if “there is an increase in disability during [active military, naval, air, or space service], unless there is a specific finding that the increase in disability is due to the natural progress of the disease.”
You may be eligible for VA benefits for a service connection based on aggravation if:
- The circumstances of your military service directly worsened the condition
- Your condition worsened due to another directly service-connected condition
- Your condition worsened due to a different, secondarily service-connected condition
Service members who enter the military with a pre-existing health condition that would have naturally progressed to the current level of severity are not eligible for aggravated service connection. Evidence would have to prove the increase in severity of the condition was not due to the natural progression of the condition. Instead, it was due to military service. In other words, if the veteran would be experiencing the same symptoms of their condition regardless of military service, their service won’t necessarily be considered the reason the condition worsened.
What is considered “natural progression” may vary from one condition to the next. It is also important to remember the standard of proof for a VA claim is “as least as likely as not.” Therefore, if a condition is “as least as likely as not” aggravated by service or another service-connected condition, the VA should still rule in favor of the veteran.
VA ratings for aggravated service-connected disabilities
When it comes to aggravated service-connected disability claims, the process of determining ratings is different than with other types of service-connected conditions. Instead of simply looking at the current severity of the disability, the VA considers changes in severity from before you started your service until today. An adjudicator may also consider the natural progression of the disease.
VA disability lawyer Cecilia Ton explains, “If your condition is service connected on the basis of aggravation, it’s important to know that your condition will be rated a bit differently than usual. The VA follows a specific procedure for this.”
“First, they establish a baseline rating by assessing the severity of your condition before it was aggravated. Then, they assign a rating based on the severity of your condition after aggravation. Finally, they compare the two ratings, calculate the difference, and that becomes the assigned rating.”
This process gives the VA the level of aggravation, or how much worse the condition became because of military service.
For example, if a veteran entering the service with hearing loss was experiencing symptoms that met the rating criteria for 10% when they enlisted, and the rating increased to 60% disabling during military service, the VA would assign the level of aggravation at 50%.
However, there is one important exception to this process. If your disability reaches a 100% rating due to the aggravation, the VA does not make the comparison mentioned earlier. Instead, it provides benefits at the 100% rating level.
What can I do if a service-connected condition worsens a non-service-connected condition?
If veterans’ service-connected conditions cause their non-service-connected conditions to worsen, they may be eligible for additional disability benefits.
“If the evidence shows that a non-service-connected disability has been aggravated by a service-connected disability, then service connection can be granted in those cases,” said VA disability lawyer Cecilia Ton.
Let’s look at an example. Suppose a veteran experienced high blood pressure before joining the military. Later, they were granted service connection for orthopedic disabilities. The pain from these orthopedic conditions could make their high blood pressure worse. In this case, the veteran could receive VA benefits for their high blood pressure through service connection based on aggravation by service-connected orthopedic disabilities.
Sometimes, the medications veterans must take for their service-related conditions can also worsen their other disabilities. In these situations, veterans would still be eligible for VA benefits. The service connection would be based on aggravation by the service-connected disability requiring the medication.
Common aggravated service-connected disabilities
The VA does not share much information on the number of claims by type of service connection. In their Annual Report, for example, it shares data on the most commonly service-connected conditions, benefits recipients by age and period of service, and more. However, it does not typically give data on how many claims are presumptive, secondary, aggravated service-connected disabilities, and so on.
Below are some examples of pre-existing disabilities that were most commonly claimed to be aggravated by military service in the early 2000s. They may give you some context on conditions that may be frequently considered as VA aggravation claims:
- Hearing Loss (Diagnostic Code: 6100)
- Flat Feet (Diagnostic Code: 5276)
- Limitation of Flexion of the Leg (Diagnostic Code: 5260)
- Traumatic Arthritis (Diagnostic Code: 5010)
- Lumbosacral/Cervical Strain (Diagnostic Code: 5237)
- Hypertensive Vascular Disease (Diagnostic Code: 7101)
- Major Depression (Diagnostic Code: 5242)
- Impairment of the Knee (Diagnostic Code: 5257)
- Bronchial Asthma (Diagnostic Code: 6602)
- Limited Motion of the Ankle (Diagnostic Code: 5271)
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How Woods and Woods can help
If you would like help applying for VA disability or appealing a decision, contact us at Woods and Woods. Our team works to get veterans the benefits they deserve. Call us today for your free case evaluation to see how we can help you. You won’t pay us a percentage of your back pay or case expenses unless we win, and we never touch your future monthly checks.
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The VA’s “presumption of soundness” rule establishes that the VA must assume that all service members were healthy when they started unless a condition was noted on the entrance examination or there was other “clear and unmistakable” proof. This is so the VA cannot deny benefits for a disability just because they think the veteran had the condition before joining the service.
The VA determines the level of aggravation, or how much a condition has worsened due to military service, by subtracting the initial rating of the disability before service from the rating after the condition worsened. The difference will be the assigned rating.