Veterans claiming “Gulf War illness” are about three times less likely than other veterans to have their disability claims approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to a new watchdog report Monday that recommended the agency beef up its response to the illness.
The Government Accountability Office said the VA handled about 11,400 claims for Gulf War illness (GWI) in fiscal 2015, more than double the number of claims filed in 2010. But approval rates for GWI were about three times lower than all other veterans’ claimed disabilities, GAO said.
Among the possible reasons for the lower approval rate are that GWI claims “are not always well understood by VA staff, and veterans sometimes file for benefits without medical records to adequately support their claim,” the report said.
The GAO said the department’s ability to accurately process GWI claims “is hampered by inadequate training, and its decision letters for denied claims do not communicate key information to veterans” about why a claim was rejected.
Veterans who served in the Gulf War, which often included exposure to a toxic environment from oil fires and chemical weapons, have been at increased risk for several illnesses including joint pain, gastrointestinal problems, fatigue and neurological disorders.
Since 1994, the VA has automatically presumed a connection between those illnesses and Gulf War service, a move that should enable veterans to receive a disability rating and benefits more quickly. Late last year, the government extended the deadline for veterans to apply for GWI benefits through the end of 2021.
GA said the VA’s claims staffers often rely on the agency’s medical examiners to assess a veteran’s disability before a decision is made on a claim. But VA medical examiners told investigators that “conducting Gulf War general medical exams is challenging because of the range of symptoms that could qualify as GWI.”
VA has developed elective GWI training for its medical examiners, but only 10 percent of examiners had taken the training as of February, GAO said.
The VA said all its pension and compensation examiners will complete a mandatory 90-minute course on GWI by November, and it will make necessary changes in the notification process by August.