The VA recently released data that shows projected increases in the demand for VA benefits. Interestingly, it noted that 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the population of Vietnam era veterans receiving disability compensation has not yet peaked. So what does this mean for younger veterans?
If the trend with respect to Vietnam era veterans holds true for veterans of other eras, then we can expect to see increasing demand for benefits from Gulf War era veterans as we move forward over the next 20 to 40 years.
Currently, about 26 percent of Gulf War era veterans receive disability compensation. But the trend in those receiving benefits is rising. The total number of veterans receiving disability compensation has increased from 11.8 million in 2009 to 17.8 million in 2014, which represents an increase of over 50 percent in 5 years.
Similarly, the VA noted that for the past 40 years the percentage of the veterans population receiving benefits has held steady at about 8.5 percent. But in the last 15 years this percentage has increased to 19 percent.
So what explains the drastic increase in the percentage of veterans receiving compensation? Some of this has to do with the demographics. The Vietnam era veterans are part of the post-WWII baby boom generation. Their health problems have exacerbated with age, forcing many to consider filing for VA benefits. Moreover, many of the Vietnam era veterans are at the age where prostate cancer, ischemic heart disease, and type II diabetes are more common in the general population. However, if a veteran served in Vietnam, he is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange, and prostate cancer, ischemic heart disease, and type II diabetes are known to be associated with Agent Orange exposure.
In addition, most veterans upon discharge from service are relatively young. They want to get on with their lives; they may have families to support, and so they tend to do their best to continue to work or otherwise cope with whatever disease or injury they may have sustained during service. But the progression of their disability combines with the effects of age, and they get to a point where they can no longer tolerate the pain or other physical impairment. So, they reluctantly turn to the VA for help. However, it often takes many years for some veterans to get to a place where they are willing to turn to VA for help.
In fact, over the many years that I’ve practiced as a lawyer for VA appeals, I have often heard veterans explain why they waited so long to file a claim. Many of them were unaware that they could file for VA benefits for non-combat disabilities. It comes as a surprise to them that they could file for a chronic disease that was incurred outside of combat.
The other problem is that many in-service events do not produce long-term health effects until much later in life. The Agent Orange illnesses are quintessential examples. Radiation exposure is another example. These factors all explain why we may be seeing the number of claims for Vietnam era veterans burgeon even further in the coming years.
Because of this expectation, VA is wise to plan for an ever-increasing volume of claims. The last thing aging veterans need is to die before their claims are resolved. After all, most veterans already believe VA is simply waiting for them to give up or die. The aging Vietnam era veteran population cannot afford to wait 4 years for an appeal to resolve. They need VA to implement systems that can resolve appeals on an established timeline. As a veterans disability attorney, I know that some veterans can understand the long wait due to the backlog. What’s frustrating is not knowing when a decision will be made.
The VA could go a long way in addressing the plight of veterans by establishing target goals for how much time it should take to resolve an appeal. If a veteran knew with certainty when his appeal would be decided, it would enable him to endure the wait much easier.