Tester, Gillibrand, Colleagues Call on VA to Fix Outdated Disability Benefits Regulations for Toxic-Exposed Veterans

Senators: “Outdated VA regulations should not deny them earned benefits the PACT Act has provided.”

(U.S. Senate) – Continuing their efforts to ensure toxic-exposed veterans and survivors receive their earned health care and benefits under the PACT Act, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are leading a group of their colleagues to urge the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to swiftly update its VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities (VASRD) regulations for toxic-exposed veterans with constrictive bronchiolitis and hypertensiontwo service-connected conditions added as VA presumptives under the PACT Act.

The Senators are calling on VA Secretary Denis McDonough to expedite VASRD regulation updates for constrictive bronchiolitis and hypertension, to ensure VA implements the PACT Act the way Congress intended and veterans deserve. During the VA disability claims process, the VASRD assigns a four-digit diagnostic code and a disability rating that determine the monthly disability compensation a veteran will receive for their service-connected conditions.

“Toxic-exposed veterans have waited decades to receive the benefits and recognition the PACT Act provides and we appreciate VA’s efforts to implement the largest expansion of VA health care and benefits in decades,” the Senators wrote in a letter to VA Secretary McDonough. “While more than 720,000 veterans and survivors have received PACT Act benefits, there are too many whose PACT Act claims have been wrongfully denied or underrated. Particularly concerning is outdated and insufficient VASRD diagnostic codes used to rate claims for constrictive bronchiolitis, as highlighted in a recent PBS News Hour article.”

The Senators highlighted their concerns with VA’s current regulations for rating constrictive bronchiolitis and hypertension, emphasizing it is leading to toxic-exposed veterans needlessly being denied them the earned expanded benefits the PACT Act has provided.

We understand constrictive bronchiolitis is difficult to diagnose without invasive procedures,” wrote the Senators. “However, VA’s use of pulmonary functions tests [in medical disability exams] –– which it uses to measure the severity of other respiratory conditions –– does not support sufficient specificity to accurately rate constrictive bronchiolitis claims.”

Currently, VA’s regulations prevent it from combining ratings for constrictive bronchiolitis and other respiratory conditions, often leading to veterans being denied service-connection for the condition because they have been granted a higher disability rating for another respiratory condition. The Senators stressed this rule ignores the diverse impacts respiratory conditions have on veterans’ health.

The Senators also underscored their concerns with VA regulations requiring hypertension diagnoses to be confirmed by readings taken two or more times on at least three different days: “This is not an issue for veterans who were recently diagnosed with hypertension and can present three blood pressure readings. However, the PACT Act expanded presumptive disability compensation benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange who have been diagnosed with hypertension –– many of whom have lived with the condition for decades. Requiring veterans to locate blood readings from decades ago, or worse, incentivizing them to go off their medications to prove they still have hypertension is overburdensome and dangerous.”

Due to these outdated regulations, the Senators noted they have heard from many veterans whose claims for hypertension were denied or rated at zero percent because they are currently managing their hypertension with effective medication.

The Senators concluded, “Veterans have waited decades for benefits and recognitions for health conditions related to their toxic exposure. Outdated VA regulations should not deny them earned benefits the PACT Act has provided.”

The Senators’ letter follows reporting from PBS News Hour detailing a lag in VA’s efforts to fix how veterans receive disability benefits for constrictive bronchiolitis, a health condition directly linked to Post-9/11 military instillations in Southwest Asia, Afghanistan, and Dijbouti.

The letter was also signed by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Angus King (I-Maine), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

 Read the Senators’ full letter HERE.