Obesity and How It’s Related to VA Benefits

By: Ryan Spencer, Veterans Disability Benefits Attorney 

Periodically, I have some veterans who would like to be service connected for obesity because of another service connected condition that prevents them from exercising. For example, being handicapped or having a bad back can substantially impede on the ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle for most. Even some mental health or gastrointestinal diseases can cause such lethargy that the veteran simply does not have the ability to exercise. But all of these problems still do not answer these underlying questions.

  1. Is obesity a disease for the purpose of establishing the right to claim service connection to active duty military service?
  2. Can obesity be related to active duty military service?
  3. If none of the above are true, can obesity be an intermediate step between a service connected condition and a non-service connected condition?

These questions, finally, have been addressed by the Office of General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in their first precedential opinion of 2017, VAOPGCPREC 1-2017.

https://www.va.gov/OGC/docs/2017/VAOPGCPREC1-2017.pdf

  1. First, while most of the medical community accepts obesity as a medical disease, for VA Benefits purposes, obesity is not in of itself a disease. “While organizations and agencies that classify obesity as a disease reasonably may do so for purposes of promoting understanding, prevention, and treatment of conditions that jeopardize a person's health, it does not necessarily follow that obesity must be considered a disease for purposes of title 38, United States Code, as a matter of law.” “While VA regulations recognize that the rating schedule is not exhaustive, see 38 C.F.R. § 4.20, we interpret the omission of obesity in the VA rating schedule to reflect the Department's considered judgment that the condition is not a disease or injury for purposes of 38 U.S.C. §§ 1110 and 1131.” “Because obesity is a well-known and widespread condition, if VA had intended to consider obesity as a disease, it would almost certainly have included provisions in its rating schedule related to obesity.”
  2. Since obesity is not a “disease” as defined by the VA, service connection cannot be granted either on a direct or secondary basis. The fact that obesity has not been designated as a disease renders the question moot as a key element of any claim is to have a recognized disease.
  3. While the above is not palatable, there is one little slice of heaven. The Office of General Counsel has ruled that obesity can qualify as an “intermediate step” between a service connected condition and another disease that you want service connected. For example, a bad back or incapacitating migraine headaches could render the ability to exercise nearly impossible. Over time this could lead to obesity. This in turn could lead to a myriad of issues, including Diabetes Mellitus, Type II, high blood pressure and even sleep apnea. These are examples of course. And it should also be stated that these inter-relationships should always be connected by a competent medical opinion. “A determination of proximate cause is basically one of fact, for determination by adjudication personnel. VAOPGCPREC 6-2003 and 19-1997. With regard to the hypothetical presented in the previous paragraph, adjudicators would have to resolve the following issues: (1) whether the service-connected back disability caused the veteran to become obese; (2) if so, whether the obesity as a result of the service-connected disability was a substantial factor in causing hypertension; and (3) whether the hypertension would not have occurred but for obesity caused by the service-connected back disability. If these questions are answered in the affirmative, the hypertension may be service connected on a secondary basis.”

This development is significant for Veterans because there has been a longstanding question for advocates and VA employee’s alike regarding the relationship between obesity and service connected conditions. I can’t say I agree with the determination that obesity is not a disease, but it is within the purview and discretion of the VA to make that decision. And we at least are not barred completely from the issue. There are plenty of veterans who are service connected for conditions that, at a minimum, cause or enhance the possibility of developing obesity and thereafter direct cause another disease. While it is not a clear victory for veterans, it is certainly better than a hard denial by the VA on all facets of obesity.

If you or a loved one has been denied your Veterans Disability Benefits, our accredited attorneys are ready to help. Call Marcari, Russotto, Spencer & Balaban at 866-866-VETS or contact us online

34 Comments

  1. avatar Bernie Kemp
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    David, so in the initial claim for disability how does list “obesity” since this is the common thread for sleep apnea, diabetes mellitus, and migraines. Will it suffice to have an internal medicine and endocrinologist state the studies show link between obesity and XYZ disease secondary to service connected (caused as a result of chronic pain & MDD or PTSD) + med to treat s/c injuries?

    • Posted August 31, 2017 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Obesity cannot be the underlying issue. You cannot claim obesity in a claim as it is not a disability but rather a status, equivalent to high cholesterol. It will suffice to have a credible medical opinion show the linkage between two disabilities via weight gain.

  2. avatar Bernie Kemp
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    How does the initial claim state obesity? Chronic pain + MDD or PTSD caused obesity. Then sleep apnea or diabetes mellitus, or migraines secondary to obesity, CP + MDD/PTSD service connected + meds to treat s/c injuries?

  3. avatar Rodney White
    Posted May 21, 2017 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Help

  4. avatar Doug
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    I have all these symptoms, I am obese, I have PTSD, diabetes, chronic back pain, high cholesterol, gasterointestinal reflux desease.

    • Posted September 6, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      I am sorry to hear that Doug. We would be happy to contact you regarding your VA Claim. Should we email you? You can also contact one of our Veterans Disability Benefits Paralegals directly.

    • avatar Paul Reina
      Posted March 31, 2018 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      I have many of these same symptoms. What can I do?

      • Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        We would be happy to discuss a potential claim with you. We can be reached at 866-866-8387.

  5. avatar Bill
    Posted December 5, 2017 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Since VAOPGCPREC 1-2017 was published, has there been any case ruled on in the affirmative providing obesity as the “intermediate step” to either Sleep Apnea or Hypertension?

    • Posted December 5, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Bill, we are not aware of one. We would be happy to discuss your VA Claim with you. We can be reached directly at 866-866-8387.

  6. avatar Raymond Paz
    Posted December 14, 2017 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I was obese off and on during my time in service. I fought that problem throughout my service. After service I eventually developed diabetes and later had gastric bypass surgery…now have HTN, hypothyroidism, sleep apnea, lower back degenerative joint disease, etc….might I still stand a chance for a claim?

    • Posted December 27, 2017 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Raymond, we would be happy to discuss your claim with you. We can be reached at 866-866-8387.

  7. avatar Carlos Bradshaw
    Posted December 22, 2017 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I have 2 service connected injuries to my R Knee that we’re misdiagnosed and not corrected for 14 years after my right knee was reconstructed 2 year later my left knee became problematic and I gain weight due to the loss mobility. Now I have several medical issues that stim from being obese. How do I get an increase rating?

    • Posted December 27, 2017 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      We would be happy to discuss this with you. We can be contacted at 866-866-8387.

  8. avatar Crystal
    Posted December 25, 2017 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    I was rated years ago with depression/MDD, im considered obese plus also have diagnosed lumbar issues with pain, diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol, diagnosed reflux problems, and nerve problems in my back legs and feet.would i be considered for multiple Secondaries or what else on top of my mental health?

    • Posted December 27, 2017 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      We would be happy to discuss your claim with you. We can be contacted at 866-866-8387.

  9. avatar Eddie
    Posted February 6, 2018 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I got discharged from the service because of my weight.

    • Posted February 23, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      We would be happy to speak with you regarding your claim. We can be reached at 866-866-8387.

  10. avatar Dennis atkinson
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    How do you get paid.i have been 6feet tall and weight is 260-270 high blood pressure for many many years. Been at over 50% for many years. Back problem,knees and more. Do I have a claim?

    • Posted February 23, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      We would be happy to discuss your VA Claim with you, we can be reached at 866-866-8387.

  11. avatar Terry Heller
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Do you start a claim or do you just take denied case

    • Posted April 19, 2018 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      We assist at the appeals process. You would need to apply and if you were denied or received less than you deserve, that is when we would step in. We would be happy to discuss this with you. We can be reached at 866-866-8387.

  12. avatar Matt
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Do they define obese according to BMI or is there another scale

    • Posted May 25, 2018 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      We would be happy to speak with you regarding obesity and how it relates to VA benefits. Please give us a call to discuss at 866-866-8387.

  13. avatar Jack26
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I enlisted in the Army with a 5 lb waiver and was considered obese at 226 lbs and 6ft tall in 1980. By 1982 I was at about 235 and chaptered out as a chapter 5-failure to maintain acceptable standards for retention. This after months of harassment by a Co commander, XO, and other NCO’s. I have numerous medical issues but can’t file for any of it.

  14. avatar Henry Harriford
    Posted July 27, 2018 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I developed obesity while in service and received treatment. Since then have been diagnosed with Severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Currently, My VA Appeal Claim is pending Regional review. Original Claim was submitted in 2013. I have been using CRAP Machine and now re-evaluation placed me on a Bi-pap machine. What now?

  15. avatar Glenn Knight
    Posted September 15, 2018 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    I enlisted I AF at 160# and was given massive steroids for choreoretnitis. I never lost time weight. Spent my last year’s in the fat boy pgm. I now have diabetes, sleep apnea and other problems that the VA says are not service connected. I have 10 months to appeal.

  16. avatar Mike Ramsey
    Posted October 29, 2018 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    4 of the meds I take have “weight gain,” as a side effect. No direct connection, but can you claim as a secondary?

    • Posted October 30, 2018 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      We would be happy to discuss your potential claim in more detail. Please call us directly at 866-866-8387 or via our website.

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