Veterans Affairs officials on Thursday announced they will immediately begin processing disability claims for three new illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, even though final rules on the cases are still a few weeks away.

“Many of our nation’s veterans have waited a long time for these benefits,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in a statement. “VA will not make them wait any longer. This is absolutely the right thing to do for veterans and their families.”

Presumptive benefits for the three conditions — bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism — were mandated by Congress in the annual defense authorization bill passed in December.

For the last five months, VA officials have been working on how to implement that order, to ensure the extra workload doesn’t overload the claims processing system. The previous presidential administration had said the work could take up to 24 months, but McDonough in February publicly vowed to speed up that process.

About 52,000 veterans and another 6,000 family members of deceased veterans are expected to qualify for the new benefits, which can be worth several thousand dollars a month.

Adding the three illnesses to the list of presumptive conditions related to service in Vietnam is key, because it removes the need for documentation conclusively linking veterans’ illnesses to their time in the ranks.

The government already recognizes 14 other conditions connected to widespread chemical defoliant use during the Vietnam War, which sickened hundreds of thousands American veterans.

VA staff noted that the rulemaking work still continues for the change, but they are looking at ways to speed the lengthy review process by getting cases filed as soon as possible. Payouts could be sent out in coming months.

Department officials will also review existing cases which were denied in the past to see if they qualify for benefits now. They could not say how many individuals may be affected by that move.

Veterans who were denied in the past do not need to take any action to have their case reviewed. Depending on the results of their case review, the department could send out retroactive payments to their initial date of filing, leading to large windfalls for some individuals.

The list of new presumptives does not include high blood pressure, a condition that outside health advocates say has strong links to chemical defoliant exposure but was not included in the defense legislation last year.

Outside advocates estimate as many as 160,000 additional veterans would qualify for disability benefits if that condition were added to the presumptive list. Lawmakers are pushing to do that in a pair of sweeping toxic exposure bills which advanced in Congress this week.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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