The Department of Veterans Affairs published an amended regulation Dec. 17 at www.regulations.gov. When it takes effect Jan. 16, these changes may benefit thousands of veterans with illnesses caused by service-connected traumatic brain injuries.
VA Public Affairs Specialist Ndidi Mojay said the Department of Defense and the VA’s joint definition of TBI is a traumatically-induced structural injury and/or physiological disruption of brain function as a result of an external force. The external force that causes a dysfunction may be the blast of an improvised explosive device, a vehicle accident, a sports injury or a particularly hard landing during an airborne operation.
According to “Final Rule — Secondary Service-Connection for Diagnosable Illnesses Associated with Traumatic Brain Injury,” the amended regulation identifies circumstances under which serious illnesses may be found to be a secondary result of a service-connected traumatic brain injury.
The final rule states that these changes make it easier for qualifying veterans to establish service connection for the five illnesses noted in the regulation. These illnesses include Parkinson’s disease, unprovoked seizures, dementia, depression and hormone deficiency resulting from hypothalamo-pituitary changes.
“A veteran with TBI can already receive benefits, but VA would require a medical opinion specifically linking the veteran’s TBI with the allegedly secondary disability,” Mojay said. “The new regulation will improve access to benefits by allowing VA adjudicators to more promptly and accurately decide claims for disabilities that are secondary to a service-connected TBI. No medical opinion will be required for veterans with TBI who meet the criteria stated in the new regulation. This rule will help ensure that the latest medical and scientific findings are readily available and clearly stated in VA regulations, which should enhance the accuracy and consistency of VA’s TBI evaluations.”
The final rule said since 2000, nearly 288,000 active-duty service members and veterans have been diagnosed with a TBI. About 62,000 of these cases were diagnosed for service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mojay added that nearly 73,000 veterans are on the VA’s compensation roles for service-connected TBI.
The final rule defines secondary service connection as a service-connected disease or injury that causes or aggravates a distinct condition. The rule stipulates that the circumstances required for the VA to award disability compensation for both the TBI and the secondary service connection depend on the severity of the TBI and the time period between the TBI and the “manifestation of the secondary conditions.”
For example, a service member with a TBI must be diagnosed with dementia within 15 years of his or her injury in order for the VA to establish that the dementia is a secondary service-connected illness caused by the service-connected traumatic brain injury. Even shorter time limitations are required for depression and hormone-deficiency diseases.
“The time periods set forth in this rule are based upon available scientific and medical evidence,” the rule states. “Because no time period is specified for Parkinsonism or unprovoked seizures following moderate or severe TBI, secondary service connection will be established in those conditions are manifest at any time after the TBI.”
Mojay said if a veteran already has been evaluated by the VA for a service-connected traumatic brain injury and would like to file a claim for a secondary service-connection illness, he or she may apply online through eBenefits.