Connecting Vets: Senators introduce bill to force VA to extend benefits for 4 Agent Orange-linked diseases

by Abbie Bennett

The Department of Veterans Affairs has delayed extending benefits to veterans exposed to Agent Orange who have four illnesses scientists recently linked to the toxic herbicide.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, veteran service organizations, and the veterans themselves say they have had enough.

On Thursday, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., along with 34 other senators, introduced the Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act. The bill would effectively force VA to provide disability benefits to veterans with hypertension, hypothyroidism, Parkinson’s-like symptoms and bladder cancer connected to Agent Orange exposure during military service.

Veterans with specific health conditions VA has determined were caused by Agent Orange can receive benefits, but not all illnesses or conditions are covered.

But VA leaders disagree with National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine scientists’ findings that link Agent Orange exposure to those four diseases, a decision they say could cost $15.2 billion. If all four diseases were included in VA’s list of covered illnesses, tens of thousands of veterans and their families stand to gain benefits.

Lawmakers and veterans’ groups have repeatedly called on VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and the White House to extend benefits and help an aging population of veterans and their families. So far, Wilkie has said he awaits the results of VA’s in-house studies. The White House has been silent, lawmakers, Congressional staff and VSOs told Connecting Vets.

“Justice is long overdue for the 190,000 aging veterans who are currently suffering – and dying – as a result of their exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam,” Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement Thursday. “This bicameral bill is as straightforward as they come – since VA isn’t willing to do its job, Congress is stepping in and requiring them to do it by law. We won’t stop fighting until this Administration does right by thousands of veterans suffering from these illnesses, who have already waited far too long for the benefits and care they’ve earned.”

Veteran service organizations have made toxic exposures a top priority in 2020, from Agent Orange to hazards that caused Gulf War Illness to burn pits, black ooze and other toxins from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Vietnam veterans did our part. After winning every battle they fought while they were in Vietnam, many of them have lost their fight to the horrible health conditions they received from Agent Orange exposure,” said Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Commander-in-Chief William J. “Doc” Schmitz. “It’s unacceptable that the list of conditions presumed to be associated with Agent Orange exposure does not include … conditions that the scientists have said are connected to military service.”

“Veterans wrote a check with their lives, and Congress vowed to take care of them when they returned home,” said AMVETS National Commander Jan Brown. “VA is already treating 1,404 Vietnam-era veterans for Parkinsonism, 5,836 for bladder cancer, 15,657 for hypothyroidism and 308,329 for hypertension. It’s time to expand the exposure list to include these diseases.”

“There is already more than enough scientific evidence to add the four pending Agent Orange-related diseases to the VA’s list of presumptive service-connected conditions,” said Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Commander Stephen “Butch” Whitehead. “We don’t need more studies, we need justice for veterans and their families. Since VA is not taking the appropriate action, Congress must.”

Last year and again in January, Wilkie said he planned to delay his decision on adding four illnesses to the list of diseases VA covers related to exposure to the toxic herbicide. The U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons of multiple herbicides over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, including Agent Orange.

Two years ago, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin decided to add more diseases to the VA’s list of health concerns that qualify a veteran for Agent Orange disability benefits. According to documents obtained by a veteran through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to Connecting Vets, White House officials stood in Shulkin’s way expressing concern about the cost of covering additional diseases and requesting more research. Military Times first reported on the documents.

A year ago, Veterans Health Administration head Dr. Richard Stone told Congress VA “hoped” to make a decision on those illnesses “within 90 days,” as previously reported by Connecting Vets.

Repeated attempts by Connecting Vets to get an update from VA officials on whether the department had a forthcoming decision have been consistently met with the same statement: “VA has no announcements on Agent Orange presumptive conditions at this time.”

A list of the diseases currently linked to Agent Orange and eligible for benefits can be found here.