President Clinton said yesterday that he supports possibly changing disability rules for Persian Gulf War veterans in a way that would allow more of them to get disability payments for "undiagnosed" illnesses.
Currently, a veteran who believes he is disabled with an undiagnosed illness arising from military service must prove that his symptoms began within two years of leaving the gulf area. Failure to meet that requirement is one of the main reasons most such claims so far have been denied.
On Monday, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown sent Clinton a letter suggesting that VA rules be changed so that if a veteran's "undiagnosed" illness arose later, he or she should still be eligible for disability. No decision has been made on a new length of time within which symptoms must appear.
"I've asked Secretary [Jesse] Brown to report back to me in 60 days with a view toward extending that limit," Clinton said yesterday.
The president made the comment at a ceremony in which he accepted the final report of an expert panel of veterans, scientists, nurses and doctors who spent more than a year investigating the issue of excessive and mysterious illness among people who participated in the campaign to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait in 1991.
Brown said he has no recommendation now for how long the symptom deadline should be extended. He said he will hold meetings with veterans' groups, members of Congress and other interested parties in the next two months in order to decide that.
Since the end of the war, some veterans have developed chronic symptoms of ill health that first appeared months or, in some cases, years after leaving the gulf. Known popularly as "Gulf War Syndrome," the constellation of complaints often includes mood changes, concentration problems, headaches, skin rashes and aching joints. Although most medical experts recognize the complaints as real (and in some cases, disabling), few believe Gulf War Syndrome is a single disease with a single cause.
Most veterans who have volunteered to be examined by Department of Veterans Affairs physicians have received one or more "conventional" diagnoses for their complaints. In about 20 percent of cases, however, doctors cannot name the veteran's disease, and it is characterized, instead, as "undiagnosed" or "ill-defined."
The Department of Veterans Affairs has reviewed about 10,000 "undiagnosed" cases, but awarded disability payments in only 620, according to VA records. (About 1,500 of the rejected applicants end up getting disability for a conventional diagnosis.) Widening the two-year window would increase that number substantially, depending on what the new final policy is.
In all, about 26,000 of the 697,000 men and women who served in the gulf now get disability payments for diagnosed or undiagnosed illnesses connected to their military service.
Clinton also announced that the 12-member Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses will continue to exist for nine months so that it can oversee the Defense Department's investigation of possible troop exposures to chemical warfare agents during the Gulf War.
Nerve gas entered the atmosphere in March 1991, when an Iraqi ammunition dump in Khamisiyah, Iraq, was blown up by American troops. It is uncertain, however, whether any soldiers actually had contact with the toxic chemical, as none of them became sick at the time.
Military officials didn't release information about this event until last June, although they had apparently possessed it since October 1991. This long delay -- which defense officials say occurred by oversight, not intent -- has led some veterans to say the Pentagon is not trustworthy of further investigating either the Khamisiyah release, or roughly a dozen other "exposure events" thought to be credible.
The advisory committee's report was extremely critical of the Defense Department's "slow and superficial" inquiries into some soldiers' reports that they had been exposed to chemical weapons. However the panel's chairwoman, Joyce C. Lashof, said at a White House news conference that "we found no evidence of a cover-up."
Later, in an interview, Lashof said the military's initial lack of openness about possible chemical weapons releases created a perception of a cover-up. That, in turn, led some veterans to believe those possible releases are central to their health.
"That's very disturbing, because it's unlikely that this low-level release of chemical agent at Khamisiyah, or elsewhere if there are others, is the answer to the Gulf War illnesses situation," she said.
In another matter, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and David Satcher, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced that Persian Gulf veterans from Iowa are more likely to report symptoms such as chronic fatigue, concentration difficulties, muscle pains and bronchitis than are Iowa veterans who didn't go to the gulf.
The veterans were surveyed about their symptoms, but none was examined by the doctors doing the study. Details on the survey will be presented today.
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