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M21-1, Part IV, Subpart ii, Chapter 2, Section B – Determining Service Connection (SC)

Overview


In This Section

This section contains the following topics:
Topic
Topic Name
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3
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1.  Determining Direct SC


Introduction

This topic contains information on determining direct SC, including

Change Date

March 2, 2017

IV.ii.2.B.1.a.  Overview of Direct SC

Direct service connection (SC) means that a particular disease or injury was incurred in service.  This is accomplished by affirmatively showing inception during service.  There are three components to proving direct SC.  These are
  • a current disability
  • an event, injury, or disease in service, and
  • a link or nexus establishing that the current disability had its onset or inception in service, which may be established by evidence of
    • chronicity and continuity, or
    • continuous symptoms or a medical nexus opinion.
All pertinent or relevant medical and lay evidence must be considered, including the service records (which may show the places, types, and circumstances of service and the official history of the organization in which the Veteran served).
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.1.b.  Satisfying the Current Disability Requirement for SC

Evidence of a current disability is required as one of the components of establishing SC.  Generally, this criterion is satisfied when a current examination or other evidence demonstrates the presence of a chronic disability.  However, the evidence must be reviewed to determine whether a disability was present at the time the claim was filed or during the pendency of the claim but has since resolved.
  • The requirement for a current disability is met if a disability exists when a Veteran files a claim or while the claim is pending, even though the disability resolves before the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) decides the claim.
  • A diagnosis that is near-contemporaneous with the filing of a claim must be considered when determining whether a disability existed when the claim was received and/or during its pendency.
    • A near-contemporaneous diagnosis is a diagnosis that is dated approximately within one year prior to the date of the claim being submitted.
    • A diagnosis that predates, but is near-contemporaneous with, a claim is capable of establishing a current disability under the law.
A determination of SC will be made on a case-by-case basis with evaluation of all pertinent evidence.  Consider the history of the diagnosis and give appropriate weight to any diagnosis present near-contemporaneously with or during the pendency of a claim.  The weighing of evidence will generally result in one of the following three possible conclusions:
  • The contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous evidence at or near the time of the claim shows a clear diagnosis.  The current medical evidence (often the compensation examination) shows the disability has resolved and no current diagnosis is warranted.  A grant of benefits is in order, generally with a staged disability evaluation.
  • The contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous evidence at or near the time of the claim suggests or reflects a treating or unconfirmed diagnosis but does not clearly establish whether a confirmed diagnosis was present.  The current medical evidence (often the compensation examination) indicates no diagnosis is currently warranted.  The evidence presently of record does not clearly establish whether the prior diagnosis was or was not warranted.  A medical opinion is necessary to reconcile the status of the prior diagnosis.
  • The contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous evidence at or near the time of the claim shows a diagnosis.  The current medical evidence (often the compensation examination) shows a clear finding that the prior diagnosis was in error and includes adequate rationale.  A denial of SC is warranted, assuming that other medical evidence does not refute the current medical opinion.
Example 1:  A Veteran is diagnosed with eczema regularly throughout service and was treated with topical medications by dermatologists on multiple occasions.  Symptoms waxed and waned, as is typical with eczema, based on seasonal changes.  Service treatment records (STRs) from June 2012 show eczema.  A Benefits Delivery at Discharge claim is submitted, and a VA pre-discharge examination from August 2012 determines that no pathology exists to render a diagnosis of a skin disorder.  The in-service records clearly show a long-standing diagnosis of eczema which was present near-contemporaneously with the claim.  SC should be granted.

Example 2:  A Veteran claimed SC for sinusitis in March 2008, prior to military discharge in July 2008.  During service, the Veteran was treated variably for upper respiratory infections, ear infections, deviated septum due to an in-service injury, chronic nasal congestion, and sinus problems.  On examination, the Veteran reported pain and headache in the sinus area and non-incapacitating flare-ups two to three times a year.  The examiner provided no diagnosis and indicated that no sinusitis was shown on exam.  The examiner indicated that there was no visible postnasal drainage or significant hypertrophy or posterior oropharyngeal lymphoid tissue.  The examiner explained that the layman concept of sinusitis or sinus problems is understandable, but in the truest sense, from a specialist’s point of view, there is no underlying chronic sinusitis in this case, especially based on the computed tomography (CT) scans.  The examiner indicated that the in-service symptoms were consistent with acute episodes of upper respiratory infection and/or symptoms of deviated nasal septum.  The evidence of record is sufficient to establish SC for traumatic deviated nasal septum.  There is no medical evidence to refute the examiner’s finding that sinusitis is not shown by the medical evidence of record.  SC for sinusitis should be denied.

References:  For more information on


IV.ii.2.B.1.c.Establishing Direct SC Based on Chronicity

The principles of chronicity and continuity discussed under 38 CFR 3.303(b) may be used only to establish SC for chronic diseases listed under 38 CFR 3.309(a).  When a chronic disease listed under 38 CFR 3.309(a) is shown in service, consider all subsequent manifestations of the same chronic disease as service-connected (SC), unless they are clearly shown to be due to intercurrent causes.  To establish SC under 38 CFR 3.303(b) based on the chronicity of a disease shown in service, the evidence must include
  • manifestations sufficient to identify the disease entity, and
  • evidence sufficient to establish the presence of chronic disability in service as opposed to isolated findings or a diagnosis merely including the word “chronic.”
Notes:
  • Evidence of continuity is required to establish SC for conditions listed under 38 CFR 3.309(a) only when the finding of chronicity is in question.
  • A careful review of the evidence may reveal that chronic disability from a condition had its onset during active duty service and has chronically persisted from active service to the present, even when service medical providers did not conclude that there were residuals or continuation of a disease or injury.
  • For any disability not listed under 38 CFR 3.309(a), SC must be established under 38 CFR 3.303(a) by associating a current disability to service by a nexus consisting of evidence of continuous symptoms or a medical opinion.
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.1.d.  Establishing SC Based on Continuity of Symptoms

Continuity of symptomatology under 38 CFR 3.303(b) may only be used to establish SC for a chronic disease listed under 38 CFR 3.309(a).  A showing of continuity for a chronic disability listed under 38 CFR 3.309(a) is required only if
  • the condition noted during service is not, in fact, shown to be chronic, or
  • where chronicity may be legitimately questioned.
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.1.e.  Establishing Direct SC Under 38 CFR 3.303(a)

Direct SC may be established under 38 CFR 3.303(a) when
  • the evidence or a medical opinion shows a nexus between a current disability and an injury, disease, or event in service, or
  • competent medical evidence demonstrates continuous symptoms that are sufficient to constitute a nexus between a current disability and an injury, disease, or event in service.
Notes:
  • Continuous symptoms are demonstrated when the medical evidence shows symptoms continuing without stopping, or recurring regularly, with minimal interruptions, from service.
  • When the evidence shows isolated instances of symptoms which do not demonstrate continuous symptomatology since service, an examination with medical opinion requested in accordance with 38 CFR 3.159(c)(4)may provide the required nexus.
Reference:  For more information on determining whether the evidence of record is sufficient to request a medical nexus opinion, see M21-1, Part I, 1.C.3.c-f.

IV.ii.2.B.1.f.  Establishing Direct SC Under 38 CFR 3.303(d)

Consider whether direct SC may be established under 38 CFR 3.303(d), even if SC is claimed for a disease diagnosed after service has ended.  SC may be awarded for a disease diagnosed after discharge when all the evidence establishes that the disease was incurred in service.

IV.ii.2.B.1.g.  Definition:  Acute and Transitory

An acute disability is a disease or injury that
  • has definite symptoms
  • is short in duration, and
  • results in a recovery without apparent residuals.
transitory disability is a disease or injury that is not permanent.
Examples:  Acute and transitory disabilities include
  • nasopharyngitis or catarrhal fever (common cold)
  • pneumonia, or
  • a bruise.
Important:  Do not arbitrarily determine in-service injuries to be acute and transitory without relying on competent medical evidence determining that chronic disability was not demonstrated.
Reference:  For more information on the need for medical evidence in acute and transitory determinations, see McLendon v. Nicholson, 20 Vet.App. 79 (2006).

IV.ii.2.B.1.h.  Definition: Presumption of Soundness

The presumption of soundness means that a Veteran will be considered to have been in sound condition (the claimed disability did not exist) when examined, accepted, and enrolled for service.
Exceptions:  The presumption of soundness does not apply when the evidence shows
  • defects, infirmities, or disorders noted at entrance into service (such as conditions noted on the entrance examination), or
  • the injury or disease clearly and unmistakably existed prior to service and was not aggravated by service.

Notes:

  • The presumption of soundness applies only when the Veteran underwent a physical examination at the time of entry into service on which the claim is based.
  • Only the conditions that are recorded in the enlistment examination report are to be considered as noted.  A history of pre-service conditions recorded at the time of the entrance examination is not a notation of the condition.  It is just one factor that must be considered on the question of presumption of soundness.
  • The presumption of soundness is also applicable when the Veteran underwent a physical examination upon entrance into service, but the report of examination is unavailable.  In such a situation, the presumption of soundness will stand.  Once the presumption of soundness arises it is only overcome when the record contains clear and unmistakable evidence showing that the disease or injury existed prior to service and was not aggravated by service.
  • A defect, infirmity, or disorder noted on the enlistment examination must meet established criteria and/or definitions of disability to overcome the presumption of soundness.  For example, audiometric data documenting the existence of abnormal hearing but not to the extent satisfactory to meet the definition of hearing loss for VA purposes as specified in 38 CFR 3.385 would not overcome the presumption of soundness.  To establish that there was a hearing loss existent at enlistment, the audiometric data must document hearing loss for VA purposes as defined in 38 CFR 3.385.

Reference:  For more information on the presumption of soundness and aggravation, see


IV.ii.2.B.1.i.  Service Requirements for Presumption of Soundness

Use the table below to determine the service requirements the Veteran must meet before VA can apply the presumption of soundness.
If the Veteran served during …
Then the Veteran must …
peacetime before January 1, 1947
have had active continuous service of six months or more, per 38 CFR 3.305(b).
  • peacetime on or after January 1, 1947, or
  • wartime
meet no minimum service requirements, per 38 CFR 3.304(b).

IV.ii.2.B.1.j.  Considering the Presumption of Soundness at Entry Into Service

Under 38 U.S.C. 1111, when no pre-existing condition is noted at entrance into service, then the presumption of soundness establishes that the claimed disability did not exist before service unless there is clear and unmistakable (undebatable) evidence showing that the disease or injury which manifested in service
  • existed prior to service, and
  • was not aggravated by service.
Notes:
  • Personality disorders are not considered diseases or injuries under 38 U.S.C. 1110; therefore presumption of soundness under 38 U.S.C. 1111pertaining to personality disorders does not apply.
  • The presumption of soundness still requires evidence of a nexus between a current disability and the in-service disease or injury.
Reference:  For more information on the presumption of soundness, see

IV.ii.2.B.1.k.  Definition: Active Continuous Service

Active continuous service may exclude lengthy periods of extended absence from duty, such as unauthorized absence or other extended non-pay status.
A determination of whether a period of unauthorized absence is considered a break in service should be undertaken on a case-by-case basis with consideration of the facts of the individual’s case, including the extent to which the circumstances, nature, and duration of the claimant’s absence affected his or her performance of continuous duty.
Examples:  The following facts and findings are set forth in General Counsel (GC) Opinions:
  • In GC Advisory Opinion Op. G.C. 4-80, the service member was absent from duty for 1,344 days before returning to military control.  The Veteran received an honorable discharge nine days later and developed a chronic disease within one year of discharge.  Since the Veteran was without active, continuous service for all but nine days of the 3-3/4 years preceding separation, the continuous service requirement of 38 CFR 3.307 was not met.
  • In Precedent Opinion VAOPGCPREC 11-1993, the service member voluntarily returned to his unit after 13 days of unauthorized absence.  Although the 13 days of unauthorized absence was not creditable for pay or time-in-service purposes, it did not constitute a break in service for purpose of the “active, continuous service” requirement under 38 CFR 3.307.

IV.ii.2.B.1.l.  Applying the Presumption of Soundness for Active Duty for Training

In claims based on a period of active duty for training, apply the presumption of soundness only when the Veteran underwent a physical examination at the time of entry into the period of active duty for training on which the claim is based.
If an examination was performed, consider the Veteran to have been in sound condition when entering active duty for training except as to defects, infirmities, or disorders noted on the examination report.
Important:  The presumption of soundness is only triggered for a period of active duty for training when an examination has been conducted if the claimant has previously established Veteran status, which is defined as having prior active military service, and was discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.  Neither the presumption of soundness nor aggravation may be applied if the claimant does not have Veteran status.
Reference:  For more information on the presumption of soundness in claims based on active duty for training, see Smith (Valerie Y.) v. Shinseki, 24 Vet.App. 40, 44 (2010).

IV.ii.2.B.1.m.Requirements for Inactive Duty Training to Be Considered Active Service

Inactive duty training is not considered active service unless SC is awarded for disability or death resulting from
  • an injury directly incurred during the period of inactive duty training, or
  • an injury or one of the following events if the injury or event occurred during inactive duty training or while an individual was proceeding directly to, or returning directly from, a period of such training
    • an acute myocardial infarction
    • a cardiac arrest, or
    • a cerebrovascular accident.
Notes:
  • If evidence establishes that an individual suffers from a disabling condition as a result of the administration of an anthrax vaccine during inactive duty training, the individual may be considered disabled by an “injury” incurred during such training.
  • An individual who suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of military sexual trauma (MST) that occurred during a period of inactive duty for training may be considered disabled by an injury for purposes of 38 U.S.C. 101(2) and (24).
References:  For more information on
  • determining duty periods, see 38 CFR 3.6
  • injuries that occurred
    • while an individual was proceeding directly to, or returning directly from, a period of inactive duty training, see 38 CFR 3.6(e), and
    • as a result of administration of an anthrax vaccine during inactive duty training, see VAOPGCPREC 4-2002, and
  • PTSD that results from MST during inactive duty for training, seeVAOPGCPREC 8-2001.

2.  Determining Presumptive SC


Introduction

This topic contains information on determining presumptive SC, including

Change Date

February 2, 2018

IV.ii.2.B.2.a.  Overview of Presumptive SC

Diseases or conditions entitled to consideration for presumptive SC will be considered to have been incurred in or aggravated by service if manifested to a compensable level within the time frame specified for that certain disease under the regulation, even if there is no evidence of such disease during service.
Type of Disease or Condition
Regulation for Presumption of SC
chronic disease
disease associated with service of the following categories
  • tropical
  • former prisoner of war
  • exposure to ionizing radiation
  • exposure to certain herbicide agents, or
  • exposure to contaminants in the water supply at Camp Lejeune
diseases based on full-body exposure to mustard gas or Lewisite
diseases associated with service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations including
  • undiagnosed illnesses
  • medically unexplained chronic multi-symptom illnesses, and
  • certain infectious diseases
diseases associated with service in Afghanistan
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) with at least 90 days of continuous active service
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.2.b.  Establishing Presumptive SC for Chronic and Tropical Diseases

Use the table below to determine the service requirements the Veteran must meet before VA may establish presumptive SC for chronic and tropical diseases.
If the Veteran served during …
And the disease is a …
Then …
peacetime before January 1, 1947
chronic disease listed in38 CFR 3.309(a)
there is no provision for presumptive SC under 38 CFR 3.308(a).
tropical disease listed in38 CFR 3.309(b)
the Veteran must have had active continuous service for six months or more under 38 CFR 3.308(b).
  • peacetime on or after January 1, 1947, or
  • wartime
the Veteran must have had active, continuous service of 90 days or more under 38 CFR 3.307.
Note:  In claims based on a period of ADT, there is no presumption of SC for chronic diseases under 38 CFR 3.309(a) or tropical diseases under 38 CFR 3.309(b) (see Smith (Valerie Y.) v. Shinseki, 24 Vet.App. 40, 44 (2010)) unlessSC has been established for a disability based on the period of ADT, as described in M21-1, Part III, Subpart ii, 6.A.2.i.

IV.ii.2.B.2.c. Considering Presumptive SC for Metastatic Cancer

SC on a presumptive basis for cancer associated with an in-service exposure event may only be established if the cancer in consideration is the primary or originating site of the cancer.  Consider the factors below in determining whether a cancer is primary or metastatic and whether SC may be established.

  • Most pathology reports will indicate if the cancer is primary or metastatic.
  • The diagnosis of cancer in one part of the body, following a diagnosis of cancer in a different part of the body, does not necessarily mean that the cancer diagnosed first has metastasized.  It is possible to have primary cancers in separate areas of the body.
  • If SC is established for a primary cancer that metastasizes into a separate body system, then SC on a secondary basis should be established for the metastasized cancer in the separate body system.

Example:  A Veteran claims SC for lung cancer associated with herbicide exposure.  Pathology reports indicate that the Veteran’s liver cancer metastasized to the lung.  Since liver cancer is not a disability presumptively associated with herbicide exposure, SC for the metastatic lung cancer as due to herbicide exposure is not warranted.

Reference:  For more information on assigning disability evaluations for cancer, see M21-1, Part III, Subpart iv, 5.B.3.b-d.


IV.ii.2.B.2.d. Burden of Proof Required to Rebut Presumptive SC

Presumptive SC can be rebutted under 38 CFR 3.307(d).  The medical evidence to rebut the presumption of SC
  • need not be conclusive, but
  • must
    • include
      • affirmative evidence of an intercurrent cause, and
      • sound medical reasoning, and
    • be based on consideration of all evidence of record.
The presumption of SC may not be rebutted using an opinion that
  • does not consider
    • the entire record, and/or
    • relevant evidence that post-dates the opinion
  • has a negative finding of causation with respect to in-service exposure by itself (unaccompanied by medical evidence and sound medical reasoning to support the opinion)
  • identifies an intercurrent cause but does not
    • establish that the intercurrent cause is the sole cause of the disease, to the exclusion of in-service exposure as a contributory cause, or
    • explain why a potentially intercurrent cause makes the presumptive cause of the disability medically unlikely, or
  • relies on the “preponderance of the evidence” to rebut the presumption, as this level of proof is not sufficient to establish affirmative evidence contrary to the presumption.
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.2.e. Example of Sufficient Evidence to Rebut Presumptive SC

Situation:  A Veteran with Vietnam service claims SC for lung cancer.  Medical opinion indicates that the lung cancer was metastasized from original stomach cancer.  The opinion is supported by and cites medical evidence indicating the lung cancer originated in the stomach and was not the result of in-service exposures.
Result:  The decision maker determines the evidence is sufficient to rebut the presumption of SC under 38 CFR 3.307.  In arriving at this conclusion, the decision maker finds that the opinion sufficiently and affirmatively identifies an intercurrent cause of the Veteran’s disease, in this case stomach cancer, and also provides a specific negative finding of causation with respect to in service exposures.

IV.ii.2.B.2.f.   Example of Insufficient Evidence to Rebut Presumptive SC

Situation:  A Veteran with service in the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) during 1968 and 1969 (sufficient to establish exposure to herbicides) claims SC for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL).  Medical evidence shows that the Veteran was previously diagnosed with hepatitis B and C.  A bone marrow biopsy was evaluated as suspicious for Hepatitis C-related B-cell lymphoma.  Diagnoses of hepatitis C-related B cell lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin’s B cell lymphoma secondary to Hepatitis C are shown in the record.
An oncologist opined that the absence of past studies would make determination of the etiology of the disorder impossible but that it was his belief that the evidence suggests that the hepatitis C infection led to the development of the lymphoma.  The oncologist supported the conclusion with citation to medical literature linking hepatitis C and NHL and noted that the appellant’s lymphoma did not manifest until after he had been diagnosed with hepatitis C.  The oncologist did, however, note that the risk of developing the tumor is greater in those with exposure to Agent Orange, even for those with a normal immune system.
Result:  The decision maker finds that the evidence currently of record is insufficient to rebut the presumption of SC under 38 CFR 3.307.  In arriving at this finding, the decision maker determines that although a negative opinion is present, the additional factors required to rebut the presumption of SC are not present.  The negative opinion is based on the entire record.  However, the evidence does not affirmatively establish that an intercurrent cause is present because the opinion concedes that the in-service exposure is a risk factor for developing NHL and that no testing was done to definitively determine the etiology of the disorder.  Consequently, the opinion does not show that the hepatitis C was the sole cause of the condition nor rule out the exposure as a risk factor or contributory cause.  Additionally, the opinion relies on an incorrect evidentiary standard since the examiner has only opined that the evidence suggests another causation, which does not provide affirmative evidence contrary to the presumption.

3.  Determining Service Incurrence of an Injury


Introduction

This topic contains information on determining service incurrence of an injury, including

Change Date

January 20, 2016

IV.ii.2.B.3.a.  Substantiating the Circumstances of Injuries

The development activity and/or rating activity must review the evidence of record, to include personnel records and STRs, to ensure the injury occurred during service and in the line of duty (LOD).
Rationale:  The results of injuries, including gunshot wounds acquired before or after service, are frequently encountered and would not be granted SC as they are not injuries that occurred during service or in the LOD.
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.3.b.  Evaluating Evidence of Scars

When evaluating evidence of scars, keep in mind that a claimant may have
  • been accepted into service with a notation of one or more scars existing at the time of entrance
  • sustained a wound, with a resulting scar, during service, or
  • received an injury following separation from service resulting in a scar that would be present at subsequent physical examinations.
Because the Veteran could have incurred a scar before or after service, exercise caution in characterizing a scar as the residual of a wound or injury incurred in service.
If there is any doubt as to whether the scar is a residual of a wound or injury incurred in service, simply describe the scar, without ascribing it to a specific injury such as a “gunshot wound” or “shrapnel wound.”

IV.ii.2.B.3.c.  Processing Examination Reports of Scars

If the presence of a scar or scars is recorded in a physical examination report related to a claim for scarring, review official records to ensure the scar or scars are in fact a residual of wounds in service.
If there is reasonable doubt as to whether the scar(s) are related to service, that is, an approximate balance of evidence for and against the claim, award SC for the claimed scar(s).
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.3.d.  Considering Evidence for Combat-Related Disabilities

Accept satisfactory lay or other evidence that an injury or disease was incurred or aggravated in combat if the evidence is consistent with the circumstances, conditions, or hardships of such service even though there is no official record of such incurrence or aggravation.
In order for evidence submitted by the Veteran to support a factual presumption that the claimed disease or injury was incurred or aggravated in service, the evidence must
  • be satisfactory when considered alone
  • be consistent with the circumstances, conditions, or hardships of such service, and
  • not be refuted by clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.

Notes:

  • 38 CFR 3.304(d) is derived from 38 U.S.C. 1154(b), and lightens the evidentiary burden with respect to disabilities alleged to be the result of combat service.
  • Even when an event or injury in service is established under the cited combat provisions, for SC to be established there must still be evidence of a current disability and a nexus between the current disability and the combat event or injury in service.

References:  For more information on


IV.ii.2.B.3.e.  Definition:
Satisfactory Evidence

Satisfactory evidence generally means evidence that is credible.
It is proper to
  • consider internal consistency and plausibility in determining whether evidence is credible, and
  • regard statements that contradict other evidence of record as unsatisfactory.
Reference:  For more information on determining whether evidence is credible, see

4.  Determining In-Service Aggravation of Pre-Service Disability


Introduction

This topic contains information on determining in-service aggravation of pre-service disability, including

Change Date

July 19, 2017

IV.ii.2.B.4.a.  Considering Aggravation With the Presumption of Soundness at Entry Into Service

Proper analysis of the evidence for presumption of soundness is very important to making a determination of aggravation.  Carefully analyze the evidence for aggravation of a claimed disability when
  • under 38 U.S.C. 1153, a condition for which the Veteran is seeking SC was noted at entry, or
  • under 38 U.S.C. 1111, a condition for which the Veteran is seeking SC was not noted at entry but evidence proves that the condition pre-existed service.

Reference:  For more information on the presumption of soundness, see


IV.ii.2.B.4.b. Evidence Establishing Pre-Existence When There Is a Presumption of Soundness

When a claimed disorder was not noted on the entrance examination and the presumption of soundness applies, only evidence showing the disorder clearly and unmistakably existed prior to enlistment may establish pre-existence of the claimed condition.
Any acceptable evidence pertinent to onset or inception of the condition should be evaluated carefully.  Determine credibility and appropriate weight of evidence which may include
  • medical records from before, during, or after service, and
  • lay evidence such as history from the claimant.
Important:  38 CFR 3.304(b)(1), and 38 CFR 3.304(b)(2) emphasize that, in conducting the analysis, the decision maker should not rely on a speculative medical conclusion.  There should be a complete medical analysis taking into consideration history, data, and generally-accepted medical principles including knowledge about the nature and course of the disorder at issue.  The decision maker, in turn, must conduct a critical analysis of the evidence.
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.4.c.  The Role of MEB and PEB Findings

The rating activity must afford Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) and Physical Evaluation Board (PEB) reports due weight when considering the evidence of record regarding a condition which may have pre-existed service.
Important:  Do not deny a claim based solely upon the conclusion of an MEB or PEB report that a condition pre-existed service and was not aggravated by service if the report does not also contain a supporting analysis or medical explanation for the conclusion.  The MEB or PEB report alone is not sufficient to constitute clear and unmistakable evidence to rebut the presumption of soundness without a supporting analysis or medical explanation.
Reference:  For more information on the role of MEB and PEB findings, see Horn v. Shinseki, 25 Vet.App. 231 (2012).

IV.ii.2.B.4.d.  Considering Lay Evidence and the Presumption of Soundness

Although contemporaneous pre-service clinical evidence or recorded history may satisfy the burden of evidence clearly and unmistakably showing pre-existence of a claimed condition when the same condition was not noted on entry into service, there is no absolute requirement that such evidence be present before the presumption of soundness can be rebutted.  A later medical opinion based on statements made by the Veteran about pre-service history of the disorder may rebut the presumption by providing evidence which clearly and unmistakably establishes the claimed condition existed prior to service.
38 CFR 3.304(b)(3) provides that signed statements made by the Veteran during service about the onset or incurrence of disease which are against the claimant’s interest cannot be used if there is no other evidence establishing pre-existence of the claimed condition.  In such a case, the other evidence will be considered as though the Veteran’s statement against his/her own interest did not exist.  However, the courts have held that other voluntary admissions of a pre-service disability or condition can be considered with appropriate application of weight and credibility assigned as described in M21-1, Part III, Subpart iv, 5.A.
Reference:  For more information on lay evidence and the presumption of soundness, see Harris v. West, 203 F.3d 1347 (Fed.Cir. 2000).

IV.ii.2.B.4.e.Aggravation Determinations When There Is a Presumption of Soundness

In determining that the presumption of soundness has been overcome, 38 U.S.C. 1111 requires that the evidence clearly and unmistakably establishes that the disability
  • existed prior to service, and
  • was not aggravated by service.
When a claimed disorder was not noted on the entrance examination and the presumption of soundness applies, but evidence shows pre-existence of the claimed disability, the presumption of soundness still applies unless clear and unmistakable evidence further proves the condition was not aggravated by service.  Such clear and unmistakable evidence must establish that
  • there was no increase in disability during service, or
  • any increase in disability was due to the natural progression of the pre-existing condition.
Consider the entire evidentiary record when making the determination as to whether there was an increase in disability in service.  The record may or may not include evidence showing
  • an identified injury or other event in service, or
  • pre-service and/or post-service treatment.
Important:  Avoid making unsupported conclusions that the evidentiary standard is not met based on the fact that the service records do not show a specific injury or causative event or that there are no post-service treatment records.
  • These facts may be irrelevant.  The relevance depends on medical evidence of the nature and expected course of the disability at issue.
  • Drawing an unsupported conclusion based on lack of post-service treatment records or service records not showing a specific injury or causative event impermissibly shifts the burden of proof onto the Veteran to prove aggravation.
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.4.f. Applying the Presumption of Aggravation to Claims Based on Active Service

Under 38 U.S.C. 1153 and 38 CFR 3.306, when there is a claim for SC for aggravation of a disability during active service, and a pre-service injury or disease was noted on enlistment, the claimant initially bears the burden of proving that the pre-existing condition worsened in service.
When an increase in disability is proven, the presumption of aggravation applies.  The presumption of aggravation requires the decision maker to consider a pre-existing injury or disease to have been aggravated by active military service when there is an increase in disability during active military service, unless the evidence clearly and unmistakably shows the increase in disability is due to the natural progress of the injury or disease.
Notes:
  • Always address the issue of aggravation when SC for a pre-existing disability is claimed.
  • If SC is not established, include an explanation of the relevant findings from the medical records before, during, and after service that demonstrate the condition existed prior to service and did not increase in severity or that the increase in severity was due to natural progression in the Narrative of the rating decision.
  • Ensure that determinations are based on independent medical evidence and not on speculation.
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.4.g.  Applying the Presumption of Aggravation to Claims Based on ADT and IADT 

In claims based on ADT or IADT, direct evidence demonstrating the pre-existing disability permanently worsened during ADT or IADT and the worsening was not the result of natural progression of the disability is required to establish aggravation (see Smith (Valerie Y.) v. Shinseki, 24 Vet.App. 40, 44 (2010)).
The presumption of aggravation does not routinely apply when the claim is based on ADT or IADT.  However, if Veteran status and active service is established for a period of ADT or IADT on the basis of a grant of SC for one or more disabilities as specified in 38 CFR 3.6(a), the presumption of aggravation does apply for other preexisting disabilities claimed to have been aggravated during the same period of ADT or IADT if
  • the claimant underwent an entrance examination prior to the period of ADT or IADT, or
  • other contemporaneous evidence establishes the baseline severity of the preexisting condition.
Example:  A Veteran establishes SC for a lumbar spine disability that was directly incurred during a period of ADT.  He subsequently claims SC for a shoulder condition on the basis that it was aggravated during the same period of ADT.  Since Veteran status has been established with the SC award for the back disability, and the period of ADT is now considered active service per 38 CFR 3.6(a), the presumption of aggravation under 38 CFR 3.306 for the shoulder disability based upon the same period of service may be extended to the Veteran if he underwent an enlistment examination for this period of service or other contemporaneous evidence establishes the baseline severity of the preexisting condition.
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.4.h.  Records Needed to Determine Baseline Level of Disability

The baseline for determining whether a pre-existing disability was aggravated by service is in all of a Veteran’s medical records for that condition, not just those covering the period of enlistment and entry on active duty.

IV.ii.2.B.4.i.  Evaluating Disabilities SC by Aggravation Under 38 U.S.C. 1153

The degree of disability evaluation existing at the time of entrance into active service must be considered when evaluating the disabilities connected to service on the basis of aggravation under 38 U.S.C. 1153.
Use the table below to determine whether to deduct the degree of disability existing at entrance from the current disability evaluation.
If the disability evaluation existing at the time of entrance into active service …
Then …
is ascertainable
deduct the entrance disability evaluation from the present disability evaluation.
is not ascertainable.
do not deduct an entrance disability evaluation from the present disability evaluation.
Note:  Do not make a deduction if the disability has a total (100 percent) evaluation.

IV.ii.2.B.4.j.  Distinguishing Between Presumption of Soundness and Presumption of Aggravation

The presumption of soundness, under 38 U.S.C. 1111, and the presumption of aggravation, under 38 U.S.C. 1153, are two distinctly different statutes with differing burdens of proof required.  The table below describes the fact patterns that must be applied to each respective statute.
Fact Pattern
Statute
Burden of Proof for Presumption
no evidence of disability upon entrance examination
presumption of soundness under 38 U.S.C. 1111
Presume soundness unless the evidence clearly and unmistakably shows
  • the disorder existed prior to service, and
  • was not aggravated by service.
evidence of disability upon entrance examination
presumption of aggravation under 38 U.S.C. 1153
If a review of the evidence reveals worsening of the condition in service, presume aggravation has occurred unless the evidence clearly and unmistakably shows the worsening of the condition was due to natural progression.

IV.ii.2.B.4.k.  Considering Flare-Ups of Pre-Existing Injury or Disease

Temporary or intermittent flare-ups of a pre-existing injury or disease are not sufficient to be considered aggravation in service unless the underlying condition, as contrasted to symptoms, has worsened.
Do not concede aggravation merely because a Veteran’s condition was in remission at the time of entry on active duty.
Reference:  For more information on the difference between increase in the underlying disability and temporary flare-ups of symptoms, see

IV.ii.2.B.4.l.  Considering the Usual Effects of Medical or Surgical Treatment

As required under 38 CFR 3.306(b)(1), unless a disease or injury that was incurred prior to service is otherwise aggravated by service, do not establish SC for the usual effects of medical or surgical treatment in service to correct or improve the condition, such as post-operative scars and/or absent or poorly functioning parts or organs.

IV.ii.2.B.4.m.  Presumption of Aggravation for Chronic Diseases

In Splane v. West, 216 F.3d 1058 (Fed.Cir. 2000), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that 38 U.S.C. 1112(a) establishes a presumption of aggravation for chronic diseases that existed prior to service but first manifested to a degree of disability of 10 percent or more within the presumptive period after service.
Under 38 CFR 3.307, this presumption may be rebutted by affirmative evidence to the contrary or evidence to establish that such disability is due to an intercurrent disease or injury suffered after separation from service.

IV.ii.2.B.4.n.  Aggravation of Pre-existing Disability Under Combat Conditions

38 U.S.C. 1154(b) provides that for combat Veterans, VA must accept satisfactory lay or other evidence of service aggravation despite the lack of official records if the lay or other evidence is consistent with the circumstances, conditions or hardships of the combat service.
Unless there is clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, grant SC if there is
  • satisfactory evidence of aggravation consistent with the combat service
  • competent evidence of a nexus between the in-service aggravation and a current disability, and
  • evidence of current disability.

38 CFR 3.306(b)(2) directs that due regard will be given to the places, types, and circumstances of service and particular consideration will be accorded to combat duty and other hardships of service.

Important:

  • A pre-existing disease or injury’s temporary or intermittent flare-up of symptoms does not trigger the presumption of aggravation unless there is an increase in the underlying disability.
  • However, 38 CFR 3.306(b)(2) provides that development of symptomatic manifestations of a preexisting injury or disease during or proximately following action with the enemy (or following status as a prisoner of war) will establish aggravation unless there is clear and convincing evidence of
    • no increase in the preexisting condition, or
    • the increase was the result of natural progression.

References:  For more information on

  • aggravation of a pre-existing disability during combat conditions, seeJensen v. Brown, 19 F.3d 1413 (Fed.Cir. 1994), and
  • requirement of a nexus between current disability and injury or disease incurred or aggravated by combat service, see M21-1, Part IV, Subpart ii, 2.B.3.d.

IV.ii.2.B.4.o. Presumption of Aggravation Under Combat Conditions

Maxson v. Gober, 230 F.3d 1330 (Fed.Cir. 2000) held that VA, in deciding whether the presumption of aggravation of a condition during combat has been rebutted, must consider a Veteran’s entire medical history, to include any lengthy period without medical complaint during and after service.  VA must consider all relevant factors, to include
  • availability of medical records
  • nature and course of the disease or disability, and
  • amount of time that elapsed since military service.
Important:  Do not merely dismiss the presence of disability because there is an absence of accompanying medical treatment records.  The absence of treatment records does not necessarily mean the absence of disability.  Moreover the absence of medical records during combat conditions does not necessarily establish the absence of disability.
Reference:  For more information on aggravation of a pre-existing disability during combat conditions, see

5.  Determining Secondary SC, Including by Aggravation


Introduction

This topic contains information on determining secondary SC, including by aggravation, including

Change Date

February 2, 2018

IV.ii.2.B.5.a.Provisions for SC Under 38 CFR 3.310(a) and (b)

Award SC for the following under the provisions of 38 CFR 3.310(a) and 38 CFR 3.310(b).
  • disabilities that are proximately due to, or the result of, an SC condition, or
  • the increase in severity of a non-service-connected (NSC) disability that is attributable to aggravation by an SC disability, and not to the natural progression of the NSC disability.
Reference:  For more information on SC for aggravation of NSC disabilities by SC disabilities, see

IV.ii.2.B.5.b.  Establishing Causation for Secondary SC

SC on a secondary basis requires a showing of causation.  A showing of causation requires that the secondary disability be shown to be proximately due to, or the result of, an SC condition.
To establish causation, the primary disability need not be SC, or even diagnosed, at the time the secondary condition is incurred.
Example:  SC was granted for a back disability with radiculopathy effective in 2015.  Credible evidence showed that the Veteran had a 20-year history of back pain and progressively worsening radiculopathy dating back to roughly 2001.  The formal diagnosis of radiculopathy was not made until 2010.
The Veteran claimed SC for a shoulder disability in 2016, stating that his early symptoms of radiculopathy caused him to lose his balance, fall, and tear his rotator cuff in 2008.  He provided a medical opinion linking his rotator cuff tear to a fall, and the fall to sensory impairment and difficulty with proprioception due to early symptoms of radiculopathy.
Result:  As the medical opinion establishes causation for the rotator cuff tear in the shoulder due to the radiculopathy, the requirements for SC on a secondary basis are satisfied.
  • Although the radiculopathy was not formally diagnosed until after the fall, the credible evidence adequately establishes a history of back problems and gradual onset of radiculopathy dating back to 2001.  A finding of causation does not require that the primary disability be formally diagnosed at the time the secondary condition is incurred.
  • Additionally, although SC had not been established for the back condition and radiculopathy at the time of the fall and subsequent rotator cuff tear, a finding of causation does not require that the primary disability be SC at the time the secondary condition was incurred.
References:  For more information on the
  • establishment of causation prior to a finding of SC or formal diagnosis for the primary disability, see Frost v. Shulkin, Vet.App. 15-3102 (2017), and
  • effective date assigned when a claim for SC for a secondary disability precedes a claim for SC for the primary disability, see M21-1, Part III, Subpart iv, 5.C.3.f.

IV.ii.2.B.5.c.  Medical Evidence Required to Show an NSC Disability Was Aggravated by an SC Disability

Do not concede an NSC disability is aggravated by an SC disability unless the baseline level of severity of the NSC disease or injury is established by
  • medical evidence created before the onset of aggravation, or
  • the earliest medical evidence created between the
    • onset of aggravation, and
    • receipt of medical evidence establishing the current level of severity of the NSC disability.

IV.ii.2.B.5.d.  Developing for Medical Evidence of Baseline Disability in NSC Aggravation Claims

The responsibility for submitting evidence to establish a baseline level of disability for a claim for secondary SC based on aggravation of a NSC disability by an SC disability rests with the claimant.
Medical evidence adequate to establish the baseline level of disability must showits level of severity
  • before aggravation by the SC disability, or
  • as soon as possible after aggravation, but before the date of receipt of the evidence establishing the current level of severity of the NSC disability.
Important:  General development for medical records, such as that included on a standard EZ application form or in automated Section 5103 notice, is sufficient to satisfy the duty to assist the claimant.  Establishment of a baseline level of disability is a legal determination made by a Rating Veterans Service Representative or Decision Review Officer, while submission of medical evidence is the responsibility of the claimant.  However, VA will fulfill the duty to assist the claimant with requesting medical evidence.
Upon receipt of evidence satisfactory to establish a baseline level of disability, request a medical examination and opinion, to include a review of the claims folder by the examiner, to establish whether increased manifestations of the NSC disability are proximately due to an SC disability.
Notes:
  • Do not request an examination if the Veteran has failed to furnish medical evidence establishing a baseline level of the severity of the NSC disability.  If no baseline can be established, no aggravation can be demonstrated and the claim should be denied.
  • The examiner must have all available evidence for review when providing an opinion on the issue of aggravation.
  • Identify the evidence of particular relevance in the claims folder for the examiner.
  • The purpose of the Disability Benefits Questionnaire opinion request asking an examiner to describe the baseline level of severity is for the examiner to provide, to the extent possible, a description of the baseline level of severity as shown in medical evidence.  Even if an examiner cannot provide this opinion, the Rating Veterans Service Representative must assess the evidence to determine a baseline based on all available medical evidence either before aggravation occurred or as soon as possible after aggravation but before the date of receipt of medical evidence establishing the current level of severity of the NSC disability.

IV.ii.2.B.5.e.  Information That Must Be Included in the Examiner’s Report for Secondary SC Based on Aggravation

The examiner’s report must separately address all of the following medical issues in order to be considered adequate for rating a claim for secondary SC based on aggravation
  • the current level of severity of the NSC disease or injury
  • an opinion as to whether an SC disability proximately caused the NSC disability to increase in severity, and
  • an adequate analysis with medical considerations supporting the opinion.
Reference:  For more information on requesting examinations for claims based on secondary service connection and aggravation, see M21-1, Part I, 1.C.3.g.

IV.ii.2.B.5.f.  Determining the Extent to Which an NSC Disability Was Aggravated by an SC Disability

To determine the extent to which, if any, an NSC disability was aggravated by an SC disability
  • determine the baseline and current levels of severity of the NSC disability under 38 CFR Part 4Schedule for Rating Disabilities, and
  • deduct the baseline level of severity of the NSC disability, as well as any increase of the disability due to natural progression, from the current level.
Note:  This policy applies even when the current level of severity of the NSC disability is 100 percent, including temporary 100-percent evaluations assigned under 38 CFR 4.29 and 38 CFR 4.30.
Important:  Aggravation is established by any increase in severity, regardless of whether it would result in a schedular increased evaluation.  Whenever there is competent and credible evidence of an increase in severity of the disability from the baseline, but the current and baseline disability would be assigned the same level of evaluation under 38 CFR Part 4Schedule for Rating Disabilities, grant SC and assign a noncompensable evaluation.  To justify SC, the degree of disability after aggravation does not have to be at least one level of evaluation higher than the baseline.
Example:  The medical examiner clearly states that the NSC disability was aggravated by the SC disability.  The medical evidence shows that the baseline level of disability corresponds to 0 percent and the current level of severity after aggravation corresponds to 0 percent under 38 CFR Part 4Schedule for Rating Disabilities.  It is appropriate to find that there was aggravation.  Grant SC and assign a noncompensable evaluation.
Reference:  For more information on increased impairment in earning capacity that does not rise to the level of meeting the criteria for the next-higher schedular rating, see

6.  Determining SC for Congenital, Developmental, or Hereditary Disorders


Introduction

This topic contains information on determining SC for congenital, developmental, or hereditary disorders, including

Change Date

July 7, 2017

IV.ii.2.B.6.a.  Definition:  Congenital or Developmental Defects

Congenital or developmental defects refer to normally static, structural or inherent body abnormalities which are typically present at birth and are generally incapable of improvement or deterioration.  These include but are not limited to
  • vertebral anomalies such as block (fused) vertebrae
  • atrial septal defect
  • pectus excavatum
  • mental deficiency
  • absent, displaced, or supernumerary parts
  • personality disorder, and
  • undescended testicles.
Note:  The presumption of soundness does not apply to congenital defects because such defects are not diseases or injuries within the meaning of the statutes governing the presumption.
References:  For more information on
  • the prohibition of SC for congenital or developmental defects, see
  • the inapplicability of the presumption of soundness to congenital or developmental defects, see Terry v. Principi, 340 f.3d 1378, 1385-86 (Fed.Cir. 2003).

IV.ii.2.B.6.b.  Definition:  Congenital, Developmental, or Hereditary Disease

Congenital, developmental, or hereditary diseases refer to diseases that are recognized to be congenital, developmental, or familial in origin.  A congenital, developmental, or hereditary disease may appear in adulthood and is capable of improvement or deterioration.
Examples of congenital or hereditary diseases include but are not limited to
  • polycystic kidney disease
  • sickle cell disease
  • retinitis pigmentosa, and
  • Huntington’s chorea.
Reference:  For more information on handling claims for SC based on

IV.ii.2.B.6.c. Establishing SC for Congenital, Developmental, or Hereditary Disorders

Congenital or developmental defects, refractive error of the eye, personality disorders and mental deficiency are not considered diseases or injuries under 38 CFR 3.303(c).  Since they are not diseases or injuries, they are not generally subject to SC.
However, establish SC, if warranted, for
  • diseases of congenital, developmental, or familial, hereditary origin that
    • first manifest themselves during service, or
    • pre-exist service and progress at an abnormally high rate during service
  • a hereditary or familial disease that first became manifest to a compensable degree within the presumptive period following discharge from service pursuant to 38 CFR 3.309(a), provided the rebuttable presumption provisions of 38 CFR 3.307 are satisfied, and
  • disabilities resulting from an overlying injury or disease of a congenital defect.
Note:  VAOPGCPREC 11-1999 held that M21-1 provisions created in 1964 did not preclude awarding SC for in-service aggravation of pre-existing retinitis pigmentosa.  Therefore, subsequent VA GC Precedent Opinions and M21-1 changes cannot be considered liberalizing changes.
References:  For more information on

IV.ii.2.B.6.d.Requesting Medical Opinions in Claims for SC for Congenital, Developmental, or Hereditary Disorders

When considering SC for a condition of congenital or developmental origin, determine whether the condition is a disease process or is simply a defect or abnormality.  In many instances, it may be necessary to request a medical opinion regarding the proper classification of a medical condition at issue.  Particularly, the examiner should be asked whether the condition is capable of improvement or deterioration.
Although the outcome of such an opinion request is probative in determining whether a congenital or development condition is a disease or a defect, and consequently whether it is subject to SC, the opinion is not wholly determinative and must be considered in the context of the remainder of the evidentiary record.
Reference:  For more information on requesting medical opinions in claims for SC for congenital or developmental conditions, see Quirin v. Shinseki, 22 Vet.App. 390 (2009).

IV.ii.2.B.6.e.  Considering the Development of Symptoms of Hereditary Disease in Service

Consider diseases of hereditary origin to be incurred in service if the pathological signs or symptoms developed after entry into active service.
Even if the Veteran is almost certain to eventually develop a disease, a genetic or other familial predisposition does not constitute having the disease.  Only when the evidence shows actual manifestation of symptoms or signs of pathology followed by a diagnosis, may he/she be said to have developed the disease.
Notes:
  • At what point the Veteran starts to manifest signs or symptoms is a factual, medical determination that must be based upon
    • the medical evidence of record in each case, and
    • sound medical judgment.
  • The only prerequisite for the application of the presumption of soundness is that the Veteran’s entry examination be clear of any noted diseases or disabilities.  When the presumption of soundness applies, it can only be rebutted with clear and unmistakable evidence that the injury or disease existed prior to and was not aggravated by service.
Reference:  For more information on the presumption of soundness, see M21-1, Part IV, Subpart ii, 2.B.1.h-j.

IV.ii.2.B.6.f.    Considering the Aggravation of a Hereditary Disease in Service

A hereditary disease that manifests some symptoms before entry into active service may be found to have been aggravated during service if it progresses during service at a rate greater than normally expected according to accepted medical authority.
Note:  This is a factual, medical determination that must be based upon the evidence of record and sound medical judgment.
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