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Drug Abuse and Hepatitis C: Is Service Connection Still Possible?

Last month, I wrote about the difficulties with obtaining service connection for Hepatitis C. This month, I want to focus on another aspect of this topic. Specifically, the relationship between Hep C and drug abuse, and how some veterans are still able to obtain service connection, even if drug abuse is involved.

To reiterate, there are many risk factors for the development of Hep C. One of the main and most widely known risk factors is illicit drug use, specifically intravenous (IV) drug use.  Certainly, this form of transmission represents a sizable percentage of those infected with Hep C. But it is also important to know that Hep C can also be transmitted intranasally (e.g. transmission through sharing drug paraphernalia), even for non-injecting drug users.

In my experience, most veterans are aware that service connection is not possible if the VA determines that a particular disability is due to willful misconduct. Willful misconduct is defined in the VA regulations as “an act involving conscious wrongdoing or known prohibited action.” Under this definition, it is pretty clear that illegal drug abuse involves wrongdoing and known prohibited action.

However, just because a veteran used drugs which were the cause of Hep C, does not necessarily mean the veteran will be prohibited from obtaining service connection for that condition. If the veteran can prove that the drug abuse was secondary to another condition that is service-connected, then the drug use itself would then be considered service connected, under the theory of secondary service connection. Secondary service connection was discussed in a prior blog on our site- http://www.hillandponton.com/secondary-service-connection/.

The most common scenario that comes to mind is veterans who suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and as a result, use drugs to self-medicate the PTSD. In my experience, combat veterans seem to be the most affected. For example, it is widely estimated that at least 15-20 percent of soldiers in Vietnam were addicted to heroin, and many of those soldiers suffered from PTSD.

Admittedly, drug use to self-medicate PTSD has been somewhat controversial in the medical and mental health fields. However, I believe it is commonly accepted in the medical literature that drugs are in fact used as a form of self-medication.

The take-away is that if a veteran has Hep C as a result of drug abuse, it is not necessarily the end of the road for pursuing service-connected benefits, especially if he/she has a mental health condition. The veteran should absolutely file the claim because the VA is required to consider the circumstances of each individual case and all possible avenues for service connection. Whether or not the VA will actually do that is a topic for another blog, but regardless, the claim should be filed.

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by Attorney Leslie Gaines

September 30, 2013

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