Belinda Edwards needs help. As the sole caregiver for her parents, both of whom have dementia and one of whom is a military veteran, navigating the web of Veterans Affairs (VA) policies in hopes of securing additional benefits for her father is, at best, challenging – especially because she needs to provide evidence his condition is related to his military service.
“Time is my enemy. I don’t have enough time to be, in my opinion, a good daughter. I don’t have enough time to be a good employee,” she said. “I don’t have enough time to work with organizations that are supposedly here to help.”
Her problem is shared by other caregivers of veterans in the same position. Despite evidence that the effects of Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can make veterans more likely to develop dementia, the road to obtaining disability benefits for dementia has more obstacles than it does for a veteran dealing with hypertension.
An estimated 5.5 million military caregivers are subject to VA’s policies to obtain care best suited for their loved one’s needs. That job can be particularly hard for caregivers of those with cognitive disorders, and there are 167,954 veterans in the VA system diagnosed with Alzheimer’s alone.
PACT Act benefits didn’t provide relief to all
The issue was one of the contributing factors to the PACT Act , which was signed into law in August 2022. It broadens VA health care benefits and includes additional presumptive conditions for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxins. Although it was hailed as the most significant expansion of benefits and services for veterans in more than 30 years, it doesn’t help everyone.
Edwards’ father, Robert Edwards, 80, is a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she would take him to the VA for check-ups. But since then, his condition worsened, and he was found ineligible to receive additional care because the VA does not presume dementia to be a condition that stems from military service.
What she says would help her most would be disability benefits — monthly tax-free payments that are made to veterans who have a condition resulting from their duty.
To gain eligibility, Edwards needs to provide evidence that her father’s condition is a result of his time in the military. This can be a lengthy and challenging process that requires gathering and submitting documents including medical and military service records and sometimes additional medical exams. But even after all that information is provided, there is no guarantee a claim will be approved.
However, there is a case for optimism. Part of the PACT Act gives VA the authority to determine if some conditions are presumed to be a result of military service. Within its first year, the PACT Act expanded coverage to certain veterans suffering from sinusitis, asthma and rhinitis, and there may be more to come.
“We want to do new presumptions as soon as we possibly can,” said VA secretary Denis McDonough at a July press conference. “We are making sure that we now use that process aggressively.”