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VA urged to make lung disease service-connected

Mar. 21, 2014 - 10:45AM   |  
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A New York congressman wants the Veterans Affairs Department to make a rare lung disease found in some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans service-connected, meaning having the condition automatically would rate compensation and care from VA.

Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop wrote VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on March 12 urging him to designate constrictive bronchiolitis a service-connected condition.

The Social Security Administration in 2012 added the condition to its “compassionate allowances” list, meaning it is among conditions expedited through the claims process because they are “so serious they obviously meet disability standards,” according to the administration.

“I commend the Social Security Administration for making it a little easier for our nation’s veterans to access the benefits they have earned through their service; it is now time for the Veterans Administration [sic] to do the same,” Bishop said.

Constrictive bronchiolitis, also called obliterative bronchiolitis or bronchiolitis obliterans, is characterized by the narrowing or obstruction of the lung’s smallest airways, the bronchioles, by scarring or fibrous tissue.

At least 38 troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a number exposed to fumes from a sulfur mine fire near Mosul, Iraq, in 2003, have been definitively diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis.

But more could have the disease. Since diagnosis only can be confirmed by a surgical lung biopsy, which many military physicians believe is too invasive, and the illness bears similarities to other conditions like asthma and exercise-induced bronchospasms, determining its prevalence among troops has been difficult.

Some veterans experiencing respiratory problems following combat deployments blame the military’s use of open-air burn pits.

The pits operated around the clock and were used to incinerate waste ranging from plastics and Styrofoam to batteries, body parts, ordnance and petroleum products, according to military sources.

Citing studies including a 2011 one by the Institute of Medicine that concluded there is not enough evidence to link burn pits with troops’ respiratory problems, the VA remains firm that burn-pit use did not result in long-term health problems.

Under a congressional mandate, however, it is developing a registry for veterans exposed to burn-pit fumes and other airborne hazards to document their exposure and health issues.

Legislation requiring VA to establish a registry was signed in January 2013 but VA is months late in implementing a plan.

Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., on Tuesday wrote Shinseki asking for answers as to why the registry has been delayed.

“We ask that you provide Congress with information on the current status of the open air burn pit registry, an accounting of problems that have arisen during the development ... detailed information on remaining benchmarks ... and any information on how Congress can help to expedite [its] implementation,” they wrote.

In a response to Military Times, a VA spokeswoman said the delay was related to software and hardware development as well as efforts to ensure security of the data and accessibility.

But spokeswoman Victoria Dillon added that veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti and the 1991 Persian Gulf War can sign up now for a Defense Department Self-Service Logon, or DS-Logon) at a DoD website to prepare for the registry launch.

“Veterans Affairs is committed to caring for veterans who have lung and other health conditions possibly related to their deployment. When available, the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry will enable VA to better assess the health of veterans exposed to burn pits and other airborne hazards,” Dillon said.

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