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VA Disability Benefits And Obesity

Obtaining VA disability benefits for obesity is a complicated, and frankly, almost impossible task. Despite numerous appeals and court cases addressing obesity, the VA still refuses to recognize obesity itself as a disability subject to compensation. However, that does not mean that a veteran’s weight gain is not an important factor in the disability evaluation process. In this article, we will discuss how the VA views obesity-related claims.

What Is Obesity?

According to recent VA studies, as many as 78% of veterans develop issues with their weight, including weight gain and obesity after service. Indeed, many veterans entered service at their ideal body weight and remained in good shape throughout their time in service. However, after service, they gained weight that can be directly attributed either to service or as secondary to a service-connected disability. Obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control, occurs when a person’s Body Mass Index exceeds the healthy weight for that individual’s height.

obesity chart

BMI itself is not always an exactly accurate way of measuring whether someone is obese. For example, individuals with significant muscle mass may be improperly classified as obese, whereas individuals with no muscle mass and high levels of body fat may be improperly classified as having a healthy weight. Despite the American Medical Association recognizing obesity itself as a disease – a disease which greatly increases an individual’s risk for other conditions such as diabetes, heart problems, cancers, or even mental illness, the VA still does not recognize obesity as a disability.

Why Doesn’t The VA View Obesity As A Disability?

For VA purposes, a disability is a disease or injury that results in a loss of a veteran’s earning capacity. Dozens of studies confirm that individuals with obesity face discrimination in the work place – in hiring, in wage negotiation, and in retention.

However, the VA generally considers obesity to be a “laboratory finding” rather than a diagnosis. Worse, many in the VA view obesity as the “willful misconduct in eating more calories than one expends”.

Health Implications For Obese Individuals

Individuals struggling with obesity face a wide array of health issues. Obese individuals can find themselves struggling with diabetes or heart conditions, obstructive sleep apnea, and impaired respiratory function.

Physically, it can cause a wide range of musculoskeletal issues such as knee problems, ankle issues, foot problems, hip and low back issues, reduced spinal flexibility, decreased endurance. Mentally, obesity can stigmatize the overweight, leading to social isolation and depression.

How Does Obesity Factor Into VA Disability?

While, at the current moment, the VA does not view obesity as a disability itself, it does recognize that obesity can be a “link in the chain” that connects two disabilities.

Thus, as the law stands right now, obesity can be considered an intermediate step that links a service-connected disability to a non-service connected secondary disability. Such an intermediate step requires:

  • The service connected disability must have caused the obesity,
  • The obesity played a substantial factor in causing or aggravating a secondary disability and
  • The secondary disability would not have occurred but for the obesity.

Examples of Obesity as an Intermediate Step

Mental health and Obesity causing Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

Veteran is service connected for PTSD and takes mental health medication. A side effect of this mental health medication causes weight gain. Despite exercise and diet, the veteran continues to gain weight. After becoming obese, the veteran developed obstructive sleep apnea.

In this example, the treatment for the service connected condition caused the obesity. Obesity is a substantial factor in the development of obstructive sleep apnea. Furthermore, because the obstructive sleep apnea did not occur prior to becoming obese, it can be shown that but-for the obesity the sleep apnea would not have occurred. Accordingly, obesity may be used as an intermediate step to link mental health and sleep apnea.

Musculoskeletal Injuries And Obesity

Veteran is service connected for bilateral knee instability and ankylosis of the lumbar spine. As a result of his knee and back injuries, the veteran is unable to exercise effectively. Despite moderating his caloric intake, he cannot stop gaining weight. Eventually, he is declared obese. After becoming obese, the veteran develops diabetes.

In this example, the veteran’s service connected musculoskeletal disabilities directly caused the obesity. Obesity is a leading risk factor for diabetes, and the veteran did not have diabetes prior to becoming obese. Lastly, the veteran never had any diabetic concerns or history until he became obese. Thus, obesity can be used as an intermediate step between musculoskeletal injuries and the veteran’s diabetes.

Obesity And Aggravating Service Connected Conditions

Veteran is service connected for a mental health condition and takes a medication that is known to cause weight gain. Veteran, after service, developed obstructive sleep apnea that did not require a CPAP and was not related to service. However, as the veteran began gaining weight due to his medication, and was unable to lose weight through diet and exercise, his obstructive sleep apnea worsened to the point of requiring a CPAP machine.

In this example, if it can be shown that the aggravation of the obstructive sleep apnea was not due to the natural progression of the disability and instead was aggravated beyond its natural course by the weight gain caused by mental health medication, the Veteran may be able to get service connection for obstructive sleep apnea that was previously not service-connected.

How The VA Handles Claims For Obesity

Unfortunately, while it seems that using obesity as an intermediate step for service connection is rather straight forward and painless, it seems that the VA generally messes up these types of claims. VA personnel use a claims adjudication manual called the M-21-1. In Chapter 5, section II, subsection 3(c)(a), the manual tells raters that obesity is not a disease or injury for purposes of disability compensation.

And unfortunately, many raters stop reading right there. However, the very next subsection discusses considering secondary connections to obesity. Yet, despite the criteria being laid out, many raters overlook or ignore this provision. This, unfortunately, leads to erroneous denials and frustration.

Has The VA Denied Your Claim For An Obesity-Related Condition Caused By Your Service?

Denials for obesity related claims are far too common. However, the experienced attorneys here at Stone Rose Law have the tenacity, experience, and knowledge necessary to turn VA denials into VA grants. Don’t wait another day to get the benefits you deserve – contact Stone Rose Law today for a free consultation.