Secondary Service Connection to Agent Orange Disability Claims
Published November 4, 2021
PORTIONS OF THIS ARTICLE HAVE BECOME OUTDATED AS OF PASSAGE OF THE PACT ACT IN AUGUST 10, 2022. See here for an updated discussion of Agent Orange disability claims.
It is no secret that Vietnam veterans have said for years that exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant widely used as a tactical tool during the Vietnam War, harmed them. Although the Veterans Administration initially denied such claims, particularly for veterans who were not actually deployed on the ground in those combat areas, over time, the science and VA handling of such claims is improving.
The VA now has a “presumptive condition” list that acknowledges that scientific evidence is sufficient to assume that Agent Orange exposure caused those conditions.
This article explores another level of harm caused by Agent Orange exposure. This harm may cause disabilities considered service-connected and compensable under the VA disability benefits structure.
Agent Orange Secondary Diseases Overview
Some types of cancer and other diseases are known to have a connection to Agent Orange exposure decades ago during service in Vietnam. The ones with the strongest presumptive connection in the eyes of the VA are on a compiled list of “presumptive conditions” (discussed below).
However, there is an additional level of analysis for disability claims related to Agent Orange exposure. It’s referred to as Secondary Service Connected conditions.
In other words, veterans may have medical or psychological conditions that are not directly connected to Agent Orange exposure but are secondary to those conditions.
For example, if you have radiation treatment for cancer caused by Agent Orange, any conditions caused by the radiation treatment may be considered secondary service-connected; if you hadn’t been exposed to Agent Orange, you probably wouldn’t have had cancer that necessitated the radiation treatment, and therefore wouldn’t have the condition caused by that treatment.
Presumptive Conditions to Agent Orange Exposure List
First, let’s talk about the primary conditions the VA considers presumptively connected to Agent Orange exposure.
There are eight types of cancer on the list – bladder cancer, chronic B-cell leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, prostate cancer, respiratory cancer (including lung cancer), and soft tissue sarcomas (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or mesothelioma).
There are also another nine non-cancer conditions – AL Amyloidosis, Chloracne (or similar acneform disease), Diabetes Mellitus Type 2, Hypothyroidism, Ischemic Heart Disease, Parkinsonism, Parkinson’s Disease, Peripheral Neuropathy (early-onset), and Porphyria Cutanea Tarda.
If you served in Vietnam or other qualifying areas during specified time periods and have been diagnosed with any of the above conditions, the VA will make a presumptive determination of a service-connection between the two for a VA disability claim.
Remember that as of January 1, 2020, Blue Water veterans are finally eligible for presumptive service connection too.
Secondary Conditions due to Agent Orange Exposure
Causation of a condition can be a two-step process. Sometimes a service-connected condition leads to another disabling condition or exacerbates a non-service-related condition. This secondary service connection can also be the basis of a successful VA disability claim.
For example, a veteran may develop depression due to an Agent Orange service-connected cancer, or a service-connected diabetes mellitus could lead to peripheral neuropathy. Keep in mind that there may be periods of delay between each step of the causative factors; military service may have been decades ago, a presumptively connected cancer diagnosis many years later, and then depression setting in several years after aggressive cancer treatment.
How do you Prove a Secondary Service-Connected Disability?
Proving to the VA that you have a secondary service-connected disability, whether related to Agent Orange or for other reasons, will require evidence of the connections.
This evidence can come in two forms. The best evidence would be from medical records, a medical opinion from a competent health care provider that can say that it is as likely as not that the service-connected condition either caused or aggravated the claimed disability.
The second best option is non-medical evidence, statements from fellow soldiers, family members, and/or work colleagues detailing their observations of the veteran’s conditions and timelines of when changes were noticed. These statements should focus on the disabling condition being claimed to the VA and not be cluttered with other details or conditions.
Although the VA will look at this type of indirect evidence, it is not the best option. Always try to get a medical opinion.
Secondary Service Connection Claims, TDIU, and SMC
An additional benefit to including secondary service-connected claims to your main disability claim is the ability to get as high a percentage rating as possible. This may also include an application for TDIU (total disability-based individual unemployability) if your service-connected conditions interfere with your ability to hold down gainful employment regularly. Check here for more details on TDIU claims.
Yet another possible type of benefit is SMC (Special Monthly Compensation). SMC benefits are amounts paid on top of a 100 percent disability rating when certain conditions are present as well.
Those conditions are the following: amputation of one or more limbs or extremities, loss of use of one or more limbs or extremities (meaning you have no effective function remaining), physical loss of one or both eyes, loss of sight or total blindness in one or both eyes, being permanently bedridden (unable to get out of bed), and/or needing daily help with basic needs (like eating, dressing, and bathing).
TDIU and SMC are not separate claims but rather part of your whole disability claim.
Get a Consultation Now
Make sure you have covered all your bases with your VA disability claim. If you have been rejected or received a lower disability rating than you think is appropriate, there may be things that can be done to reverse or improve the outcome on appeal. Find out if you are eligible for more benefits now.
Veterans Law Group has successfully handled veterans’ disability claims for the past 25 years, including Agent Orange claims. Our job is to acquire and assemble the information the VA needs to grant your appeal easily. We collect reports, develop strategies, and make your best arguments to the VA on appeal.
Contact us today for a free evaluation of your case.