These military fire veterans have help making their claims
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Now that the Veterans Benefits Administration has started providing disability benefits to servicemen exposed to burn outbreaks, so good is it not? Not according to Bart Stichman, whose organization helps represent veterans with these claims. He is co-founder and special advisor of the National Veterans Legal Services Program and has joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss.
Tom Temin: Bart, good to see you again.
Bart Stichman: Thanks for having me, Tom.
Tom Temin: And it has been a long battle of lobbying and veterans organizations trying to get that benefit for those exposed to the burns. And is the situation now resolved? The benefit is legal and they process the claims.
Bart Stichman: Well, that’s just the beginning, Tom. What the VA did for the first time was to recognize that there are three different types of respiratory ailments linked to toxic fumes from fireplaces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Southwest Asia – and the rhinitis, sinusitis and asthma. For example, veterans who contracted these illnesses within 10 years of leaving Southwest Asia can obtain benefits. But these are just a few of the diseases that science shows are linked to toxic fumes. And that’s why there are bills pending in Congress from both the House and Senate side to add many more diseases to the list of those presumed to be related to burn outbreaks.
Tom Temin: And what are these other evils?
Bart Stichman: Many of them are respiratory ailments, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchialitis. But there are also cancers, respiratory cancers. We now represent a veteran who developed kidney cancer which scientists say is linked to the exposure. And the bills sometimes list as many as 20 illnesses that, if adopted, would force the VA to pay compensation for someone who served in Southwest Asia.
Tom Temin: And these are, as they presently present themselves for all three respiratory zones, asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis are presumed to be a disease related to the burn foci if you have them in those 10 years. So all you have to do is go in and register, or do you find that there is still some work to be done?
Bart Stichman: It’s much easier, but there is still work to be done. You really need to have a diagnosis, and the VA will give you a physical for one of these three conditions. And then the record has to show that you were diagnosed within 10 years or exhibited symptoms, which were ultimately diagnosed with one of those three conditions within 10 years of your discharge.
Tom Temin: And are you helping veterans through this process? Do you find that they, at least some of them, need help getting through the process?
Bart Stichman: Absoutely. We recently opened the Burn Claims Assistance Program in our organization, the National Veterans Legal Services Program. People exposed to burns can request free representation at www.nvlsp.org. And veterans, we accept cases not only for veterans who have any of these three diseases that we talked about but other diseases because we can try to win by using a medical expert who will say that in his expert opinion, they believe veterans kidney disease, or whatever, is related to toxic fumes from fireplaces.
Tom Temin: And if the VA arbitrator says no, what is the recourse?
Bart Stichman: The recourse is to appeal in the VA system to the Board of Veterans Appeals and possibly the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which has the power to overturn the decision if the weight of the evidence is strongly against what the VA found, and which can be overturned by veterans court.
Tom Temin: We talk to Bart Stichman, he is co-founder and special advisor of the National Veterans Legal Services Program. And looking at the backlogs that were at VBA, and they go up and down over the years, do you get the feeling that the backlogs for disability appeal applications, which were getting really out of hand for a while there? , are now under control by VBA?
Bart Stichman: Much more under control, the problem is not solved, they are still late, but it is not as extreme as it used to be. Partly because Congress in 2017 changed the system, it created a more streamlined system that allowed the VA to adjudicate claims faster.
Tom Temin: And what about the fireplaces, do these cover the Gulf War during the first Bush administration as well as Afghanistan and Iraq? Where do you feel most of the claims come from, what wars?
Bart Stichman: More coming, because of more troops, OIF and OEF operations, from Iraq and Afghanistan from September 11.
Tom Temin: Correct, because it lasted 15 to 20 years.
Bart Stichman: Exactly.
Tom Temin: And does the army still burn burns? Have you looked upstream to see if they still apply these kinds of measures?
Bart Stichman: There is a great effort to get them to fold them all together. I don’t know what the current status is, but there is a lot of pressure not to use it anymore. You can build incinerators that would solve the problem.
Tom Temin: Well. And while we have you, you’ve also launched a new class action lawsuit that has just been certified. And you have pro bono advice from a major law firm helping here with the unwarranted denial of military disability retirement on the DoD side. What’s going on? Why is this costume launched?
Bart Stichman: Well, there is a long term problem with the military trying to avoid the cost of war for military disability retirement benefits. So you can get these benefits, if the military finds that you have a disability while you are on duty and you are not fit to continue your service, then it guides you through a process. to decide whether you should take a military disability pension or lesser benefit, military separation. And Military Disability Retirement is a great program, you not only get monthly disability benefits, but you get TRICARE, the right to the military health care program for the rest of the veterans’ life, the rest of the life. life of spouses and children while they are minors. And too often, the military leans not to give a military disability pension, but rather to give any benefit, even though you should be entitled to a military disability pension. So that’s what it is about in this case. The Navy and Marine Corps have had a policy for the past two years that they will only take into account the medical conditions that are listed on a particular form in deciding whether you are unfit to continue service, number one. And second, if your disability rates combined with your unsuitable conditions are 30% or more. And so, obviously, the more unsuitable conditions give you a much better chance of reaching the combined disability rate of 30%, which is the threshold you must meet for military disability retirement. So instead of looking at six illnesses or injuries, and combining the disability rates so it’s easier to hit 30%, with the Navy and Marine Corps, what we’re doing is saying only two or the number that a board has put on a form will be considered.
Tom Temin: It is the actual policy, in other words.
Bart Stichman: Exactly. The policy correctly mentioned, if it is on the form, we will consider it. Even if you complained about five other illnesses or injuries, if it is not on the form, we will not take it into account. This is the challenge. And recently, on October 27, the U.S. District Court certified it to be a class action lawsuit. The Navy and Marine Corps admit that there are over 3,600 people who meet the definition of the class and could benefit from it. We think there are a thousand more but we will see as the case unfolds.
Tom Temin: And it’ll probably take a while then, that’s just the start of the battle, looks like.
Bart Stichman: It’s true. We are halfway there. The first question is is this a class action lawsuit? But the next question will be whether the policy is illegal in the first place? And that is the battle ahead.
Tom Temin: Bart Stichman is co-founder and special advisor of the National Veterans Legal Services program. Thank you so much.
Bart Stichman: Thanks, Tom. It’s good to talk to you.