Recently the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has changed the way it classifies tinnitus for compensation. If you or a family member is affected by tinnitus and receives benefits from the VA, you may wonder what this change means for you. Tinnitus can be a debilitating condition on its own, but it is also often related to several other qualifying disabilities that qualify for VA coverage. The VA update seeks to compensate veterans for associated health conditions and may diminish the benefits received for tinnitus alone. Therefore, the reclassification of tinnitus is likely to have ramifications for many disabled veterans. The Georgia VA Disability lawyers at Affleck & Gordon know these new rules and aim to help Georgians understand them. Affleck & Gordon attorneys work to assist veterans to learn how VA disability classifications affect their benefits and to ensure that individuals secure the maximum benefit for which they are eligible. Read on to learn more about the VA’s new guidance regarding tinnitus, and how Georgia VA Disability lawyers can help you pursue and secure your benefits.
What Is Tinnitus?
According to the AARP, the most common symptom of tinnitus is constant ringing, buzzing, or clicking in one’s ears. For others, tinnitus can sound like screeching or pulsing; it can come and go, or remain constant. Tinnitus is often the first sign of hearing loss, and some 50 million Americans have experienced it. An estimated 14 to 16 million people seek medical help for tinnitus. The condition can be maddening and sometimes debilitating.
There is no clear medical consensus about what triggers episodes of tinnitus, but medical experts agree that these episodes signal that something has gone wrong with the auditory system. Tinnitus is linked to conditions that may trigger or worsen the problem, including longtime exposure to excessive noise and a variety of drugs that harm the ear. The AARP points to intriguing new research that has found changes in the brain associated with tinnitus: hearing damage may cause random neurons to fire erratically and create “noise.” Unfortunately, a single cure for tinnitus has not been developed, so solving the problem often means working with a medical provider through a process of trial and error.
How Does Tinnitus Affect Veterans in Particular?
Tinnitus is the number-one disability that afflicts veterans returning from conflict, according to hearing loss and disorder specialists. Veterans who have seen combat or worked in certain fields, such as aeronautics, are at special risk. Tinnitus is also a growing problem among active-duty service members, according to a 2019 study. For some veterans, tinnitus doesn’t greatly affect quality of life, but for others, it can cause sleep interruptions and/or disruptions to concentration, as well as trigger negative emotions.
Sleep apnea is closely associated with tinnitus. According to In a 2021 study of nearly 900 veterans with tinnitus, people with moderate to severe cases were more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety. About a third of all people with tinnitus also have hyperacusis, which is hypersensitivity to noise.
Veterans who have been deployed are regularly exposed to the risk factors most closely associated with tinnitus—loud sounds and head injuries. In a 2019 study, researchers at the VA San Diego Healthcare System assessed the hearing of 2,600 Marines before and after they were deployed into combat. Predictably, combat tended to aggravate any tinnitus they had before. Both PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) were linked to worsening tinnitus, especially among the Marines who had a TBI because they were exposed to the concussion of explosives. In addition, tinnitus can have a delayed effect, meaning it can emerge or become problematic years after combat. Age-related or trauma-related hearing loss can further increase the impact of tinnitus.
How Are VA Benefits Classified for Tinnitus?
In the spring of 2022, the VA updated its VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities (VASRD) specifically pertaining to the respiratory, auditory, and mental disorders body systems. These changes will affect the benefits awarded only to veterans whose applications are evaluated after these rules go into effect; benefits for veterans currently being compensated for tinnitus will not change. VASRD is the system that determines a veteran’s level of compensation for service-connected disabilities. Compensation is based on the severity of the condition as documented by medical evidence. According to the VA, the 2022 changes to the VASRD are intended to incorporate medical advancements in treatments for certain disabilities and to incorporate modern medical knowledge into its process, in order to “more accurately compensate veterans.”
In particular, the VASRD changes regarding compensation for sleep apnea may be affected. According to the VA, “some of the proposed changes include modernizing the evaluation criteria for sleep apnea by evaluating it based on the symptoms’ responsiveness to treatment. If symptoms are fully treated by a CPAP machine or other treatment, a veteran would be rated at 0% and not receive compensation; VA will award progressively higher percentage evaluations based upon how symptomatic the condition remains after treatment. This change in the rating criteria for sleep apnea means that veterans applying for benefits now can be compensated at a lower rate than those receiving benefits under previous VASRD policies. For tinnitus, the VA would recognize the condition as a symptom within an individual’s broader ailment, and service-connected compensation would be determined based on ratings that apply to that ailment.
Some veterans and lawmakers argue that this reclassification of tinnitus will result in veterans not receiving the care they deserve. According to Senators Richard Blumenthal and Jon Tester, new VASRD policies are cost-saving measures that will negatively “transform its decades-long treatment of what is now its most commonly diagnosed service-connected disability.” Along with some veterans, the senators believe that new policies will leave many veterans lacking VA recognition for tinnitus, which results in a loss of “access to earned benefits and treatment options, namely the hearing aid technologies so many veterans rely upon.” The senators argue that the VA ceasing to compensate veterans for tinnitus by itself imposes a greater burden on veterans to prove their tinnitus is linked to another service-connected disability. The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) also strongly opposes the updated compensation ratings, saying “the proposal would deny benefits to Veterans who have tinnitus unless they have hearing loss that is not compensable.” The ATA adds that this proposed change would effectively diminish tinnitus as an independent condition for millions of people, and reduce the future number of veterans with tinnitus eligible for benefits.
How Can I Secure My VA Benefits for Tinnitus?
Keeping track of ongoing changes to service-connected disability compensation can be challenging and intimidating. But Georgia VA Disability lawyers can help veterans understand new VA policies regarding tinnitus and related disorders. The team of attorneys at Affleck & Gordon works hard to become highly knowledgeable about VA policies, even as they are developing. They can assist you and your loved ones as you seek to understand policy updates, and how they will affect your VA Disability claim. Furthermore, the Georgia VA Disability lawyers at Affleck & Gordon have years of experience assisting veterans as they navigate the process of applying for and providing the correct documentation for VA benefits. The team at Affleck & Gordon has many years of experience working to ensure that veterans secure the benefits they are owed by the VA. Contact the Georgia Disability lawyers at Affleck & Gordon for a free consultation today to learn more about how VASRD updates affect you, as well as how you can secure the compensation you deserve.