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The Veterans Affairs Department is proposing to add five medical conditions to a list of diseases that, if diagnosed in a patient with a brain injury received during military service, automatically would be presumed service-connected.
The proposed regulations change, expected to be published Monday in the Federal Register, would make it easier for afflicted veterans to receive benefits and health care from VA.
Illnesses under consideration include unprovoked seizures, symptoms of Parkinson's disease, certain types of dementia including Alzheimer's disease, depression, and hormone deficiencies caused by changes of the hypothalamus and pituitary glands.
Service connection will depend in part on the severity of the traumatic brain injury and onset of the illness, which will be considered secondary to the TBI, according to VA.
Officials said the change was made based on a 2008 Institute of Medicine report that noted "sufficient evidence of an association" between the diseases and moderate and severe TBI, and in the case of depression, mild concussions.
"We must always decide veterans' disability claims based on the best science available, and we will," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said. "Veterans who endure health problems deserve timely decisions based on solid evidence that ensure they receive benefits earned through their service to the country."
More than 250,000 service members suffered a TBI from 2000 to 2012, with 194,000 classified as "mild" — a concussion. About 42,000 suffered a "moderate" TBI defined as a "confused or disoriented state that lasts more than 24 hours but less than seven days" and can be seen in brain images. Another 2,527 received a severe TBI, and 3,949 had a penetrating wound to the head, which can be caused by a weapon or blow that results in skull fragments lodged in the brain.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposed rule before it is finalized.
The new regulation has the potential to add claims to an already burdened VA disability claims backlog. About 900,000 benefits claims are pending before the department.
Paul Sullivan, a Persian Gulf War veteran and spokesman for the law firm Bergmann & Moore, which handles disability claims, called the new regulation "good news for veterans."
"What this does is make it easier for VA to process the claim with one less evidentiary step. And it established a framework for considering other conditions secondary to TBI," Sullivan said.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, newly minted ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, issued a statement applauding the move but cautioned VA to prepare for a fresh influx of claims.
"While this announcement is a positive step forward, VA needs to be prepared for the new claims, which could stress an already backlogged and overwhelmed claims process," he said.