Huntington Disease: Making a Service Connection for Benefits

An inherited brain disorder, Huntington Disease (HD), also called Huntington’s Disease and Huntington’s chorea, is a genetic condition that causes progressive degeneration of the nerve cells in the brain. HD is also associated with or may lead to dementia, because the deterioration of those nerve cells creates problems with a patient’s cognitive and physical capabilities.

HD is the result of a single defective gene in chromosome 4. This defect, called a CAG repeat, causes a part of the patient’s DNA to develop more times than is necessary. In people without HD, this segment of DNA repeats between 10 and 28 times. However, in a patient suffering from HD, it repeats 36 to 120 times.

vet_salutesIf you’re a veteran who suffers from HD, you may wonder if you’re eligible for disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Obtaining benefits for this neurodegenerative disorder is dependent on a few specific requirements that involve the timing of the disease and your military service.

Because it may not be easy to receive benefits for this disease, it’s helpful to hire an experienced VA disability attorney to help you file your claim.

Understanding Huntington Disease

Because HD is a progressive disease, a patient’s deterioration can be detailed in stages. Here's a general look at the various stages of HD:

  • Early stages. Patients with early signs of HD may have subtle symptoms at first. They may be a little forgetful, have difficulty dealing with new events, or staying organized, and find it takes them longer to complete work activities or make decisions. Additionally, they may experience slight, uncontrolled muscular movements, as well as clumsiness and stumbling.

    In this stage, there may be small signs of emotional issues, as well. Patients may demonstrate irritability, impulsiveness, apathy, and even some periods of depression. However, at this stage, patients with HD are able to perform well at home and at work.
     
  • Intermediate stages. As HD progresses into the intermediate stages, the motor symptoms experienced by patients develop into involuntary jerking and twitching of the legs, arms, neck, and head. Patients may appear inebriated because they often stagger when they walk and slur their speech. While patients may find working or dealing with household tasks more challenging, most can handle a daily routine.
     
  • Advanced stages. As patients move into the advanced stages of HD, the involuntary movements become more rigid, and they can no longer handle the normal tasks of daily life. Many often require professional in-home care or residency in a nursing home. It’s common for patients at this stage to have difficulty swallowing, maintaining weight, and communicating. Typically, people with HD die due to complications of the condition such as infection, heart failure, and choking.

Making a Service Connection for HD

Congenital, hereditary, and genetic conditions cannot be caused by military service and, thus, aren’t rated by the VA. Because HD is an inherited, genetic disorder—meaning that it’s a condition that will develop in a person’s life no matter the circumstances—HD can be considered a condition that existed prior to service (EPTS). A condition classified as an EPTS is usually not considered to be service-connected because the military had nothing to do with its development and is not at fault. HD is a condition that may have developed before service or could manifest later in life.

However, if you satisfy specific criteria, it’s possible to meet the eligibility requirements for VA disability benefits for HD. Here's a general look at those requirements:  

Service-aggravated
If your EPTS genetic condition develops while you’re a service member in the military, it’s automatically considered “service-aggravated.” However, you must be able to clearly prove that the condition wouldn't have developed at the same time and to the same degree, whether or not you were in the military. The VA determines if your military service actually aggravated your HD by examining the seriousness and timing of the condition and comparing it to the “medically-accepted normal progression” of the condition. If the VA finds that your HD was worse or occurred “earlier than the norm,” the agency will determine that it was service-aggravated.

It’s important to note that a service-aggravated condition won’t always be given the full rating as a non-EPTS or non-genetic condition. Instead, you’ll be compensated for how much your condition was changed by your military service.

Service-connection after eight years of service
Genetic conditions aren't typically eligible for disability unless they’re service-aggravated. However, if you’ve served on active duty for over eight years, your EPTS or genetic condition is automatically considered service-aggravated and is eligible for compensation.

In general, if you’ve served eight years or more, HD will be considered a service-connected condition and fully ratable as long as you're diagnosed while still on active duty. If you’re not diagnosed until after your discharge, your condition won’t be considered service-connected. Some exceptions to this policy have been made, so you may want to consider submitting a disability claim if your HD develops after your service.

We Can Help

If you’re a veteran with HD, you may qualify for VA disability benefits. Hiring an experienced VA attorney can help determine if you meet the time requirements of your military service and the onset of the disease, as well as if your service aggravated your condition.

Contact the attorneys at Cuddigan Law who can help you understand the process and work with you on your VA application or appeal to increase your chances of getting an approved claim.

 

Sean D. Cuddigan
SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska