What is Secondary Service Connection?
Most veterans seeking compensation through the VA are aware that they are entitled to file for service-connected disability benefits. Service-connected disability benefits are awarded for injuries or conditions that were incurred in or aggravated during active military service. However, many veterans are not aware that in addition to service-connected benefits, there may also be entitlement to “secondary” service-connected benefits.
Secondary service connection is when a service connected injury or condition causes a new disability or aggravates a non-service connected disability. For example, if a veteran is service-connected for diabetes and years later develops heart disease as a result of the diabetes, the veteran may be eligible for secondary service connection of the heart disease. The veteran would have to prove through medical evidence (most likely through an expert medical opinion) that the non-service connected heart disease was caused by the diabetes.
It is also important to note that the secondary disability can be much more severe than the disability that is already directly service connected. I see this scenario play out with two common disabilities. The first is diabetes. The most common rating for diabetes is 20%. A 20% rating requires the veteran to be on medication and that the veteran restricts his or her diet. However, it is common knowledge that diabetes can lead to many other disabilities. For example, in addition to the heart problems listed above, diabetes can also lead to other conditions such as neuropathy, hypertension, nephropathy and retinopathy, to name a few. I have represented multiple clients that were initially only rated at 20% due to service connected diabetes; however, as a result of their other, more severe secondary disabilities, they were able to obtain a higher rating through the VA. In fact, some of these veterans have obtained a combined rating that equaled 100%, and sometimes even higher through special monthly compensation, and their only initial service connected disability was diabetes, which was rated at 20%.
The other scenario where I see secondary service connection play a significant factor involves veterans with back conditions. The VA measures back disabilities based on how far forward an individual can bend. Often, I will see someone with a 20% rating for a back, but it is clear that the veteran is completely unable to work. In these situations it is important to identify any secondary disabilities such as radiculopathy (pain, numbness and weakness in the legs caused by the back pain) and/or depression due to the back condition. Again, when the VA’s rating for the back doesn’t match the actual impact the disability is having on the veteran, I look to see what other disabilities the back causes in case the veteran may be entitled to a higher rating. It is not uncommon for the VA to miss secondary conditions that should be rated.
The important lesson to take away is that if you file a claim for service connection or if you are already service connected, always make sure to consider whether or not there are any conditions that may be “secondarily” service connected.
I always advise veterans filing for service connected compensation to list not disabilities but symptoms. In other words, the veteran should file for back disability and leg weakness or just a claim for degenerative disc disease. The VA has a duty to look at all the evidence and determine the totality of the claim. But it is up to you as the veteran to make sure that you are listing all the symtpoms from which you are suffering. Even if you do not have any secondary conditions at the time of the initial filing, if a new condition develops later on, you can always file a new claim for secondary service-connection at a later date.