COVID-19 And VA Survivors Benefits

COVID-19 And Disabled Veterans 

The coronavirus was declared a pandemic in early 2020. Since then, COVID-19 has taken thousands of lives, including the lives of many Veterans. Many Veterans who lost their lives to COVID-19 belonged to the part of the population that is most vulnerable to the virus – elderly and immunocompromised individuals.

While COVID-19 may not be a service-connected disability, it is still important for disabled Veterans to know how the disease may affect their lives. Although COVID-19 cannot qualify a Veteran for service connection or disability benefits, it can be an influential factor in qualifying for survivors benefits. The VA sometimes offers this compensation to the spouses or dependents of disabled Veterans who have passed away.

High-Risk Groups For COVID-19

Many Veterans who are actively receiving Department of Veterans Affairs disability benefits from the Gov. and Congress are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. According to the CDC, high-risk groups include older adults and people with certain health conditions such as asthma, lung disease, heart conditions, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, Veterans who are severely obese, or service members who are immunocompromised (such as cancer survivors).

Many service-connected disabilities can make a Veteran more vulnerable to COVID-19. If you are currently receiving care from a VA healthcare facility, a VA healthcare professional can inform you whether your service-connected disability increases your COVID-19-related risks.

Many veterans are concerned that if they happen to contract the virus and do not recover, their spouses may not be cared for. This concern is valid – COVID-19 poses a real threat to the health of many Veterans. 

Dependent Indemnity Compensation (DIC)

If a Veteran’s death results from a service-connected injury or disease, the Veteran’s spouse (and sometimes a qualified dependent child) is entitled to Dependent Indemnity Compensation (DIC). DIC is a monthly payment given to a surviving spouse or family member, much like the VA compensation payment Veterans with service-connected conditions receive.

A spouse may also qualify for DIC benefits if the wartime Veteran dies of a non-service-connected injury or disease but was:

  • Totally disabled due to a service-connected disability for 10 years or more proceeding his or her death
  • Totally disabled due to a service-connected disability for at least one year prior to death and was a former prisoner of war
  • Totally disabled due to a service-connected disability since the Veteran’s release from active duty and for at least five years preceding his death

In the context of DIC, “totally disabled” means that a Veteran has received a 100% disability rating from the VA. This rating is given to Veterans living with service-connected conditions that make it impossible to function at work and in everyday life. These conditions can be either physical or psychological, but you must link them directly to a service-related injury or experience from a Veteran’s time in the military.

As mentioned above, certain instances where a spouse or dependent could receive disability compensation payments from the VA do occur. But how does this work if a Veteran contracts COVID-19 and passes away?

Survivor Benefits for Coronavirus 

In the case of COVID-19, it is unlikely that a Veteran would be service-connected for the disease itself. COVID-19 is not a condition that can be easily linked with a Veteran’s military service, especially if the Veteran contracted the illness after active duty

However, a service-connected disability need only be a cause of the Veteran’s death. That means COVID-19 could be the direct cause of death, but if the Veteran’s service-connected disability was a contributing factor, the Veteran’s spouse may still may have eligibility for benefits. In other words, if a Veteran is considered more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to a service-connected disability, the Veteran’s spouse may be able to qualify for DIC.

On the other hand, it is not clear if being service-connected with a risk factor would mean that your spouse automatically qualifies for benefits. In some cases, the VA may not recognize a Veteran’s service-connected disability as making them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. While some disabilities can potentially increase the risk of contracting COVID-19 or the severity of the disease’s symptoms, other conditions may not. It is important to consider that having a service-connected disability does not necessarily mean that you are in a high-risk demographic for COVID-19 or that your spouse will automatically qualify for DIC

Concerned Veterans and spouses should consult with their doctor if they are in a risk factor category to ensure they take the recommended steps to prevent contracting the disease. High-risk individuals can work to minimize their chances of getting COVID-19 by doing the following:

  • Wearing a face-covering in public. The CDC recommends wearing a mask any time you are out in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A face covering can help to minimize the spread of germs from others to you and vice versa. Make sure to routinely clean or replace your face mask, ideally after each use.
  • Practicing social distancing. Keeping a distance of at least six feet between you and others when you are out in public can help reduce the spread of COVID-19. If you do come into close contact with someone, make sure to promptly and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Practicing strong personal hygiene habits. You can work to kill germs by routinely washing your hands with soap and water and using hand sanitizer. It can also help to avoid touching your face with unwashed hands – germs can be transferred from your hands to your face, leaving you at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
  • Acquiring a vaccine when possible. The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine is now underway in many states. Being in a higher-risk demographic for COVID-19 may make it easier for you to register and qualify for earlier administration of the vaccine. 

A doctor can also note the risk factor in their medical service record for further evidence. If you are attempting to obtain DIC for COVID-19, the VA may take notes from your doctor into consideration.

If you are in a high-risk demographic, you should also let your attorney know to make sure they have it on record and in your file. This information can play a key role in filing a claim for DIC benefits. In addition, any other medical evidence that you can obtain from your doctor can be beneficial in your DIC claim.

What To Do If You Are Denied Compensation

In some cases, the VA will not qualify a disabled veteran or their spouse for the benefits they deserve. If you are a disabled Veteran or the spouse of a Veteran who has passed away, you reserve the right to appeal a VA decision that you disagree with. You can appeal a denied disability claim, a disability rating that is too low, or any other VA decision.

The VA appeals process can be complicated, and it’s difficult for many Veterans to navigate the process independently. For this reason, any Veteran or Veteran’s spouse needs to recruit a skilled attorney when making a VA appeal. An experienced lawyer can help you compile evidence, make strong statements to the VA while in court, and more.

A VA appeal starts at the regional level, then moves to higher courts if necessary. If you want to dispute your claim further after it is handled at your regional VA facility, it can move up to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals in Washington, D.C. Your attorney can represent you through all of the stages of the appeals process.

If you need help disputing a VA decision, including one related to COVID-19 and VA survivors benefits, contact Berry Law Firm today. Our team comprises Veterans from numerous branches of the military, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. 

We are a team of Veterans committed to helping our fellow Veterans and their families receive the compensation they need and deserve. One of our attorneys can help you navigate the VA appeals process, whether you are a disabled Veteran yourself or the spouse of a Veteran who has passed away. Caregivers or eligible surviving spouses may be eligible for death pension, education benefits or VA pension from VA.gov.