If you are a veteran with leukemia or another cancer, or if you are the surviving spouse of one of these veterans, you may qualify for disability benefits–especially if you or your spouse were in an area where Agent Orange exposure was common. Here’s what you should know about leukemia and associated VA disability benefits.
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If you are a veteran with leukemia or other cancer related to your military service, you could qualify for VA benefits due to those conditions. You also may be eligible for these benefits if you’re a spouse of a veteran with one of these conditions who passed away.
Vietnam veterans, and all veterans exposed to Agent Orange, may be more likely to develop leukemia or another cancer because of Agent Orange exposure. A federal act recently expanded the benefits related to this exposure. This post explains what you need to know about the VA disability rating for chronic B-cell leukemia.
In this article about VA benefits for B-cell leukemia:
Does leukemia qualify for VA disability?
Leukemia, which is cancer that starts in the bone marrow cells that make blood cells, qualifies for VA disability. This cancer causes blood cells to divide and form abnormally. Since it is a blood cell cancer, it spreads through the bloodstream. It causes damage to many parts of the body and organs.
Your immune system relies on lymph cells to fight infection. One specific type of lymph cell is the B-cell. When these cells are almost mature and diseased, it’s called chronic B-cell leukemia. One of the main indicators of this cancer is a high white blood cell count.
B-cell leukemia is associated with Agent Orange exposure. The VA recognizes it as a presumptive condition. That means to receive VA disability benefits, you only have to prove that you were in certain locations during specific times where the VA presumes you were exposed, but you do not have to prove a medical nexus (how a condition is connected to your military service). You will need a current diagnosis of leukemia. VA can provide you with an examination to confirm a diagnosis if you believe you have leukemia but do not have it actively diagnosed.
What are symptoms of B-cell leukemia?
Each person responds differently to leukemia due to genetic factors. Symptoms of B-cell leukemia include:
- Painless, swollen lymph nodes
- Persistent fatigue
- An enlarged spleen, which causes pain in the upper left part of the stomach
- An enlarged liver
- Night sweats
- Unintentional weight loss
- Repeated infections
- Bleeding and bruising easily
- Petechiae: tiny red spots on the skin
- Pain or tenderness in the bones
Some people may experience complications caused by chronic B-cell leukemia, including frequent upper or lower tract respiratory tract infections. The damaged immune system can allow infections to become more serious.
If left untreated, leukemia can be fatal.
VA disability rating for leukemia
Like with other forms of cancer, the VA disability rating for chronic B-cell leukemia remains at 100% throughout a veteran’s treatment and will stay at that rating for six months while in remission before the VA reevaluates them. VA will then provide a rating based on the residual symptoms of the cancer.
In addition, people who have undergone cancer treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy are also at an increased risk of developing leukemia. So, it could be a secondary condition for veterans treated for service-connected cancer. Here’s how to claim a secondary service connection if you need to do that.
Agent Orange and leukemia
Exposure to Agent Orange—an herbicide used to remove leaves from trees and plants—is directly linked to developing cancers, including leukemia. The VA has a presumptive list of Agent Orange ailments which indicates that to be eligible for disability benefits as a result of exposure, you simply need to demonstrate that you were stationed there during a specified period of time and that you suffer from one of these conditions.
What is Agent Orange?
The military used Agent Orange in many locations, including on military bases, beginning in the ‘60s. The military widely used Agent Orange in the Vietnam and Korean wars. Agent Orange was also stored on U.S. soil. Soldiers were also exposed to the chemical in Navy ships and on Air Force planes. Although it is impossible to know exactly how many people were exposed to Agent Orange, the VA estimates that there may have been as many as 2.6 million.
Veterans began fighting for compensation and benefits for health issues resulting from Agent Orange in 1979. The Agent Orange Act signed in 1991 mandates that some diseases associated with exposure to the chemical automatically be treated as related to military service. The act was the catalyst for the VA’s current coverage of the conditions.
Agent Orange exposure and the PACT Act
The PACT Act, which was signed into law in August 2022, expanded that coverage. Before the passage of the PACT Act, veterans were presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange if they served “boots on the ground” in Vietnam, on its inland waterways, on ships within 12 nautical miles of the Vietnam coast, in the Korean demilitarized zone, or on C-123 airplanes that transported Agent Orange.
Military personnel who deployed in the following places are now eligible for VA disability compensation due to Agent Orange under the PACT Act:
|Thailand (at any U.S. or Royal Thai base)||Jan. 9, 1962 – June 30, 1976|
|Laos||Dec. 1, 1965 – Sept. 30, 1969|
|Cambodia (at Mimot or Krek, Kampong Cham Province)||April 16, 1969 – April 30, 1969|
|Guam or American Samoa (or in the territorial waters)||Jan. 9, 1962 – July 31, 1980|
|Johnston Atoll (or on a ship that called at Johnston Atoll)||Jan. 1, 1972 – Sept. 30, 1977|
If you or your late spouse served in one of these areas, you may be eligible for compensation or even VA back pay for missed benefits.
VA surviving spouse benefits for B-cell leukemia
Various benefits are available for veterans’ survivors through the VA, depending on the circumstances of the veteran’s military service and resulting disabilities. Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), for example, provides a monthly tax-free payment of $1,562.74 to a surviving spouse. The payment increases with dependents and special circumstances.
To qualify for DIC benefits, a spouse must prove the veteran died from a service-connected disability or that it contributed to their passing. If a veteran was totally disabled for at least 10 years before death, the cause of death is presumed to be the service-connected disability.
To receive the benefits in most cases, a spouse must have lived with the veteran until the death. If not, the surviving spouse may still collect payments in certain circumstances.
A surviving spouse must also either:
- Be married to the veteran within 15 years of their discharge from the military service during which the qualifying illness or injury started or worsened
- Be married to the veteran for at least a year
- Have a child with the veteran
The marriage requirement includes common-law or same-sex marriages where couples were in a “deemed valid marriage” for at least a year. “Deemed valid” means the VA finds that there would have been a valid marriage if not for the existence of a legal impediment.
Surviving spouses also can continue receiving DIC benefits if they remarry, but only if:
- They remarried on or after Dec. 16, 2003, and were 57 years of age or older at the time
- They remarried on or after Jan. 5, 2021, and were 55 years of age or older at the time
Survivors who file for DIC under changes resulting from the PACT Act might receive a monthly payment and back pay.
Previously denied DIC claims
Cases that the VA previously denied–for example, if your spouse served on a Royal Thai air base but was previously denied benefits for Agent Orange exposure–may now be eligible for earlier effective dates, which is the date of entitlement to benefits. It’s typically the date the VA received a veteran’s claim, or the veteran became eligible for benefits. Veterans will receive more payment from the VA for an earlier effective date.
The VA is required to review these cases, even if you were denied benefits in the past. The law says that the VA must review cases as if the PACT Act was in effect at the time of the original claim’s submission, regardless of when the veteran applied, was denied, or if they are still in appeal. These changes could mean significant back pay for Vietnam veterans or their survivors.
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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Yes, the VA offers disability benefits to veterans with cancer related to their service, including those exposed to Agent Orange.
Like with other forms of cancer, a veteran with leukemia receives a 100% rating throughout their treatment and will keep that rating for six months while in remission before the VA reevaluates them.