08 January 2016

C-123 Agent Orange Veterans Propose Line of Duty Investigation of Our Exposures (no answer from VA to either proposal)

In hopes that VA continues seeking a process to permit C-123 veterans' retroactive disability compensation, we reached out to VA leaders to restate our arguments. A particularly interesting tactic might be Line of Duty determinations through the Air Force for our exposure injuries to meet statutory requirements for "veteran" status. VA's Interim Final Rule liberalizing rule to grant veteran status wouldn't be necessary, and VA could reconsider its retroactive disability compensation barrier. 
Secretary McDonald' said when announcing his C-123 decision, “Opening up eligibility for this deserving group of Air Force veterans and reservists is the right thing to do,” said Secretary McDonald. “We thank the IOM for its thorough review that provided the supporting evidence needed to ensure we can now fully compensate (emphasis added) any former crew member who develops an Agent Orange-related disability."  

We say, Keep trying, VA!

Our email to VA, January 7, 2016:

If tomorrow VBA must continue denying C-123 veterans' retroactive disability compensation, we respect that endeavor but are disappointed with it.

Our C-123 folks have a different perspective. Mr. Gxxxxx Bxxxxxx is an example of one of your C-123 veterans who has waited over six years for VA to resolve the issues of his prostate cancer and, more recently, leukemia also. 

VBA approved his 2009 claim only in June 2015, and his leukemia claim in August 2015, with all retroactive compensation denied, of course. I don't know how the percentages of disability would have been calculated with his prostate cancer, but he is presently at 40%. 

Had that percentage held for the six years since VA got his claim, this vet's compensation due would be around $45,000. Compensation he has waited patiently for VA to take care of in its normal course of granting claims back to date received. Like all of us, Bradley was not expecting the negative impact of the Interim Final Rule's liberalizing effect and dismissal of the VA OGC precedential opinions.  

What he'd waited for was only partial compensation for his pain and suffering, and only partial compensation for considerable loss of working time from his cancers. There is no compensation for this veteran's reduced life expectancy.

Air Force LOD manual AFI 36-2910 has as its overall philosophy protection of the servicemember's military benefits and eventually, veterans' benefits as well. We're asking Air Force for that philosophy to have full play here. The AFI requires Air Reserve Component members to report exposure and other illnesses and injuries within the regulation's mandatory 180 days, after which only VA would have authority. 

Fortunately, this requirement is satisfied because we reported the issue in early 1979 after which the Air Force Armstrong Labs submitted its incomplete Conway Report on one of our squadron's airplanes, C-123K  #362 ("Patches") and identified military herbicide residue. Using that data and test date from 1994, CDC ATSDR confirmed to VBA in 2011, we have a 200-fold greater risk of cancer than screening values. Not 2X. 200X. CDC said we should have been flying in full HAZMAT, but that was too late to help anyone.

The VA has a caring philosophy similar to the Air Force, but with specifically, a duty of insuring all the benefits due a veteran are provided, while at the same time taking a pro-veteran, non-adversarial and paternalistic perspective with every benefit of the doubt resting with the veteran. In clearer words, do all that's right by us within the law.

Last week VBA explained why DOD JSRRC confirmation (in 2013 and again in 2014) to the Agent Orange Desk of our exposures was not required to be shared with our veterans and why it did not apply to Reservists per VA 21-1MR and the VCAA. I don't understand their logic about why our being Reservists made it necessary for VBA to hide such official government confirmation of our exposures from us until after the Institute of Medicine C-123 hearings. 

I trust that VA can and will (if leadership approves) find a path forward which respects the rules you must operate under as well as the rights and benefits needed by and due C-123 veterans who volunteered for many years to fly these toxic airplanes, and who have already waited decades for your help.

An aside, please: VA has done a wonderful job with St Paul's processing C-123 issues. VA is also doing a great job using many different channels to get the word out to our veterans. Thank you!

Our email to VA, January 4, 2016:

I have raised the concern about C-123 retroactive disability compensation, presently blocked by the liberalizing rule per the Interim final Rule. The hope is to find a compromise for at least a year of retroactive compensation, presently blocked by the statutory "veteran" issue already much discussed. 

Our view is that by late 2011 VA had ample government evidence to form "an overwhelming preponderance of evidence" supporting our claims but instead insisted it had "an overwhelming preponderance of evidence" against them. VCAA and VA21-1 should have helped the input from ATSDR, NIH, USPHS and JSRRC be considered with our claims evaluation on the "case by case" basis Secretary Shinseki and Under Secretary Hickey assured us was the case. Instead, resolution was postponed until June 2015. 

The few C-123 grants made prior to June 2015 all received full retroactive disability compensation (all were granted either by DRO or BVA decisions, none by VARO actions.)

Months ago when we met at the Senate Russell building to discuss the C-123 IOM report prior to publication of the Interim Final Rule, I raised the hypothetical concern of Ebola exposures and asked whether VA would treat Air National Guard and Reservists as "veterans" if the disease were to develop two weeks after their aircraft returned from Africa and the aircrew returned to civilian life. 

VA answered, "No," as with the C-123 veterans. The "veteran" issue blocks VA care and benefits for Reservists and Guardsmen and exposure situations.

Researching this issue further, I contacted the Air Force Reserve Command Surgeon who said he'd resolve such an issue by generating Line of Duty determinations. AFRC is where LODs on C-123 veterans would have been initiated. He'd expect VA to respect an LOD as protection for the airmen. He would consider generating LODs months or perhaps even a year or so after an event to protect the airmen, although AFI 36-2910 specifies a limit of 180 days for Air Reserve Component servicemembers. 

For four years, USAF has taken a completely hands-off position, leaving us to VA's mercy, but perhaps somebody in a blue suit or green bag will be led to do right by us at last.

Our time frame of 1972-1986 would have to be addressed with an LOD request through the Air Force Board of Correction of Military Records (AFBCMR.) While Air Force regs specify a 180 day period to submit an LOD following an event, Secretary James has complete authority in AFI 36-2910 to waive that constraint and anything else. The Board acts with the Secretary's authority.

Any airman can submit an AFBCMR request. In this instance, I ask that VA indicate to AFBCMR acceptance of such an approach for a representative C-123 vet. Further, I hope that VA can raise the issue with Secretary James and seek her acceptance.

With the Secretaries' input with their acceptance of this approach, the AFBCMR can make its decision based on the history of the issue, the supporting documentation, the IOM and other reports, JSRRC input and the flexibility built into AFI 36-2910. 

The AFI specifies:
"An LOD determination is based upon the onset of the disease, illness or injury process, not existence of symptoms."(​

AFRCI 36-3004
The objective of the Reserve benefit system is to compensate, to the extent permitted by law, members of AFRC who experience incapacitation or loss of civilian earnings as a result of an injury, illness, or disease incurred, re-injured or aggravated in the line of duty, and provide the required medical and dental care associated with the incapacitation.

It would be better if an LOD can even be considered by the normal Air Force channels for such decisions without the time delay involved with an AFBCMR appeal.

This could provide a resolution for the "veteran" issue otherwise dependent on the liberalizing rule and permit VA to consider claims and appeals submitted prior to June 19 2015.

Perhaps technicalities make an LOD approach or any other solution difficult, but we believe it is reasonable and just, given the facts of the C-123 vets' exposure, ailments, and difficulties receiving the same benefits as their Active Duty counterparts and C-123 vets whose claims were approved prior to the Interim Final Rule.

Please forgive the inexpert phrasing of my suggestion as my ability to research and present the issue is quite limited. We count on VA to offer the most pro-veteran assistance that is permitted.

Please stop finding avenues permitting (not requiring) VA to say "no" and instead, find ways within the law to do what's right for us.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Got something to share? Nothing commercial or off-topic, please.