Studies have shown that veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange are more likely to have children with birth defects. Therefore, in certain cases, the child of a Vietnam veteran may be entitled to disability benefits in their own right. One of the requirements that must be met in order for a child to receive benefits from the VA is their parent must have “served in Vietnam.” This means that the parent must have set foot in Vietnam, served aboard a ship in Vietnamese inland waterways, or been aboard a ship that was docked in Vietnam. With the push for the VA to redefine “service in Vietnam,” children of Blue Water Veterans may soon be entitled to benefits that they were previously denied.
Who is an Eligible “Child?”
In general, a child with a diagnosis of spina bifida, other than spina bifida occulta, who was conceived by a veteran after that veteran served in Vietnam any time from January 9, 1962 to May 7, 1975 is eligible for spina bifida benefits. Children of female Vietnam veterans may be entitled to a broader range of birth defects in addition to spina bifida. Qualifying claimants are eligible for substantially more monetary, health, and vocational rehabilitation benefits in addition to the benefits that are available to all children of disabled veterans.
An eligible person is defined by the VA as a child born to a Vietnam veteran who meets the VA’s requirements for “service in Vietnam.” For purposes of spina bifida benefits, the term “child” means the biological child of a Vietnam veteran, regardless of age or marital status, who was conceived after the date on which the biological parent first entered Vietnam. Grandchildren of Vietnam veterans are no eligible for spina bifida benefits.
The issue of whether a claimant is the natural child of a Vietnam veteran will usually be resolved by the parent’s name on the birth certificate. When an issue of paternity exists, the VA will request the necessary evidence to establish parentage.
Date of Conception
The claimant must have been conceived after the Vietnam veteran parent first began service in Vietnam. The date of conception only becomes an issue if it appears that the claimant was conceived before the date that the Vietnam veteran parent began service in Vietnam.
Diagnosis of Spina Bifida
VA benefits apply to “all forms and manifestations of spina bifida, except spina bifida occulta.” If a potential claimant has a diagnosis of spina bifida occulta, it may be helpful to seek another medical diagnosis. This second medical opinion should be made by a specialist (a neurologist or a doctor from a spina bifida clinic). The specialist should state two things in his opinion: (1) why the spina bifida occulta diagnosis is incorrect, and (2) that it is “at least as likely as note” that the correct diagnosis is a form of spina bifida other than spina bifida occulta.
Applying for Benefits
The claim for spina bifida benefits belongs to the child so it is unnecessary for the veteran to file a VA claim for these benefits. A claimant needs to fill out the VA Form 21-0304 Application for Benefits for Certain Children with Disabilities Born of Vietnam and Certain Korean Service Members. This form asks for easily obtainable information and should normally be accompanied by the claimant’s birth certificate, the parent’s DD214, and a medical statement. If the claimant is over 18 years old and is competent, he or she must sign the form themselves.
Unlike claimants for other VA disability benefits, a claimant for spina bifida benefits will not have to undergo a VA medical examination unless the spina bifida diagnosis is suspect.
Getting an Award of Benefits
The VA first processes the spina bifida claim for entitlement to a monetary allowance based on the severity of the claimant’s spina bifida. If a claimant is entitled to this monetary allowance, they will also receive medical and vocational benefits. The effective date of the award (when payment begins) is one year before the date the clain was filed, but no earlier than the 1996 (when the 1996 Agent Orange Benefits Act took effect) or the date of the claimant’s birth, whichever is later. When the VA grants entitlement to spina bifida benefits, the claimant will receive the following:
- An award letter
- A summary of information concerning health care and vocational rehabilitation
- Information about direct deposit of checks
- A VA Spina Bifida Healthcare Benefits Card
- The VA Spina Bifida Healthcare Benefits Fact Sheets
- A VA Spina Bifida Healthcare Benefits Handbook (if this is not included, the claimant should request it.)
If a claim for spina bifida benefits is denied, the claimant can appeal the decision just like any other VA disability claim. Additionally, there are VA regulations that provide for central review procedures outside the normal VA appellate process for spina bifida appeals.