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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

VA expands family benefits

Spouses and children of ALS sufferers qualify

Carl Gidlund smokejumper@roadrunner.com

A 58-year-old Post Falls woman – we’ll call her Sharon since she doesn’t want her real name used – receives a tax-free $1,154 monthly check from Veterans Affairs because her husband, a veteran of two years of Army service, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS.

In addition to the monthly stipend, which is retroactive to last September, Sharon is eligible for VA health care and medicines, and she has educational benefits. In addition she’ll receive a dependent’s military identification card which will enable her to shop at military commissaries and exchanges.

In essence, she has the same benefits as any retired veteran, with the exception that she’s not eligible for space-available travel on military aircraft.

Her monthly stipend will be adjusted for inflation in future years and if she had college-age children, they would receive VA educational benefits.

Sharon, who is unemployed and living on her savings, says the money provided by the VA “is a lifesaver. I was just getting by until now.”

Sharon’s husband, who was 59, died of the neuromuscular disease in 2003, 18 months after being diagnosed. In September 2008, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs added ALS to a list of health conditions that are presumed to have been caused by service in the military.

Daryl Heisey, a Kootenai County veterans service officer, said the VA secretary’s ruling applies to anyone who served in a military service for 90 days or more, whether or not he or she was in a combat zone, then contracts the disease. He said the stresses of basic training and other military duties are now regarded as “presumptive causes” of the disease.

“Unlike other presumptive conditions, service connection for ALS doesn’t require specific exposure to biohazards or confinement as a prisoner of war,” he said.

“Even if the veteran passed away years ago, the surviving spouse can file a claim for a service-related death, and my office will help veterans and their families with these claims.”

Sharon learned of the ruling from a friend of her deceased husband who heard Heisey brief a veterans group about the new benefit. She met with Heisey, who helped her with the required paperwork, and she began receiving her benefit check three months later.

Heisey said five other Kootenai County widows whose husbands died of the disease are now awaiting eligibility rulings from the VA. His office helped the women fill out the required forms and submitted them on their behalf.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. James Peake relied on a study by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine which found that veterans are developing ALS at rates higher than the general population.

The disease affects 20,000 to 30,000 people of all races and ethnicities in the United States, is often relentlessly progressive and is almost always fatal, according to VA officials.

Other medical conditions are presumed by the VA to be caused by military service, according to Heisey, thereby rendering the affected veteran and surviving spouse and children potentially available for assistance.

If a veteran was exposed to Agent Orange, which was used as a defoliant during the Southeast Asia wars, and later contracts one or more diseases, the veteran and his family members probably qualify for VA assistance, Heisey said.

The list of those diseases is long, and includes prostate or respiratory cancer, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, AL amyloidosis, Hodgkins’ disease, chloracne, multiple meyeloma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, acute and subacute periphreal neuropathy, porphtria cutanea tarda, diabetes Type II, and various types of soft tissue sarcomas.

The VA also recognizes that children of veterans exposed to herbicides may have contracted various maladies associated with their mothers’ or fathers’ condition and therefore would be eligible for help from the agency.

On another issue, Heisey explained that, until 2002, retired veterans with disabilities waived their retired pay to receive VA disability compensation.

“That system was unique to military retirees,” Heisey said, “since all other federal service retirees have been entitled to receive their full regular retirement plus a disability compensation.”

In December 2002 a law was enacted that restores military retired pay to veterans with combat-related injuries.

As a result of that legislation, Congress authorized two programs for disabled retired veterans: Combat-Related Special Compensation and the Concurrent Retirement and Disability Program.

“Like many government programs, they’re complicated,” Heisey said, “but it’s my job to stay on top of them. My assistant, Kurt Neumaier, or I will be glad to explain any of the programs.”