When the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced in April that Obliterative Bronchiolitis was one of 52 rare diseases added to SSA’s Compassionate Allowance list, it provided a glimmer of good news for hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. At least they can count on SSA to quickly deliver Social Security disability benefits to them.

VA Slower to Deliver

However, getting disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for this disabling disease is much more difficult. The VA is reluctant to recognize that open-air burn pits that were in operation on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan may have caused damaged lungs in these war veterans.

Cause and Effect of Rare Lung Disease in Veterans

Obliterative Bronchiolitis is characterized by inflamed and permanently scarred airway passages. Symptoms include dry cough, wheezing and shortness of breath, similar to asthma, bronchitis, emphysema or pneumonia. And, it’s irreversible.

One of the causes of this rare lung disease is exposure to toxic fumes. According to the VA, open-air burn pits were used to destroy waste products that included “chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics and Styrofoam, rubber, wood, and discarded food.” Yet, a report from the Institute of Medicine has not fully convinced the VA that there are long-term health concerns caused from toxic exposure to burn pits.

SSA’s Compassionate Delivery of Benefits to Veterans

However, Obliterative Bronchiolitis is a disabling and life-threatening lung disease. This is why SSA has recognized it for Compassionate Allowance to “ensure that Americans with the most serious disabilities receive their benefit decisions within days instead of months or years.” This includes disabled veterans.

“This is a huge breakthrough for us,” Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Neil Rogers said in an Army News Times article. The former helicopter pilot has the disease and can’t work because of his symptoms. “It practically guarantees us benefits.”

Disabled veterans are eligible for Social Security disability benefits (SSDI) if they have paid into Social Security through past work and have worked long enough to be insured for Social Security benefits. It is a federal program that follows different eligibility and disability rules from the VA. Read the Freedom Disability article, “Can Disabled Veterans Get SSDI Benefits? “

The Next Agent Orange?

In the meantime, the VA is sponsoring more studies to assess long-term health problems in veterans from exposure to burn pits, though the VA’s Web site on burn pits states that the “irritation related to solid waste burning exposure, however, is temporary and resolves once the exposure is gone.”

The “irritation” has left scarred lungs, disability, heartbreak and death. Could clarity on the issue of burn pits take as long as the struggle for Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange?

For now, the VA is continuing to assess disability claims for veterans diagnosed with this rare lung disease one case at a time.