Connecting Vets: Lawmakers to push VA to expand benefits for more Agent Orange-linked diseases in defense bill

by Abbie Bennett

Members of Congress are offering amendments to the annual defense spending bill that would force the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand disability benefits for more Agent Orange-linked diseases VA leaders have so far delayed covering.

In a news conference last week, Senate minority leader Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the plan to amend the National Defense Authorization Act, saying it had “broad bipartisan support” and he planned to include it in the defense bill currently working its way through Congress.

“We’re here to unveil a national plan. We’re about to win this fight,” Schumer said. “The plan … will expand the list of diseases, will provide relief for tens of thousands of veterans” nationwide.

“It will pass,” he said, holding up a copy of the amendment, which his office shared with Connecting Vets.

This week, Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., introduced an amendment to the House defense bill to expand VA healthcare benefits to more than 22,000 veterans. Earlier this month, Senate Veterans Affairs ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., secured an amendment to the Senate version, folding his Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act into the massive bill.

So far, VA covers 14 illnesses linked to the toxic herbicide used during the Vietnam War. But VA leaders have resisted or delayed adding four additional illnesses — hypertension (high blood pressure), bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism, leaving thousands of aging and ill veterans without disability benefits for those issues.

Schumer said his plan would require VA to “formally acknowledge the substantial proof linking” three of the four illnesses to Agent Orange exposure, which “caused all kinds of damage to our vets.” The plan would add “these conditions to the Agent Orange presumptive conditions list,” he said.

Senate NDAA amendment for Agent Orange benefits expansion

The Senate minority leader said he plans to get the fourth illness — hypertension — included on the House side since Senate Republicans nixed it.

Tester and Harder’s amendments match that, pushing for the three illnesses but with plans to push for hypertension as well.

Republican Senate leaders “agreed to put the amendment on the floor,” Schumer said. “They’re in charge, but they left out one condition, hypertension, and we’re going to get that in when the bill goes to the House. We’re going to fight to get that in.” Including hypertension could expand benefits to more than 2 million veterans.

Lawmakers and veterans’ groups have for months 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.

Wilkie said he would likely not make a decision on expanding benefits for the four illnesses until “late 2020.”

‘I’m at their mercy’: Decades later, Agent Orange veterans still waiting on VA to decide claims

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.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has said repeatedly he disagreed with National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine scientists’ findings in 2016 and 2018 that link Agent Orange exposure to the four diseases, a decision VA says could cost from $11.2 billion to $15.2 billion.

Schumer said the delays have been caused by those concerned about the cost of extending benefits to those veterans.

“Unfortunately, Penny-pinchers in the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) and even in the VA have excluded thousands and thousands of veterans from getting the benefits they need,” he said. “That’s why we are resorting to legislation.”

Schumer made his announcement Tuesday alongside Vietnam Veterans of America members.

“This has been a long time coming,” VVA President John Rowan said.

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.

In 2017, 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’ Patricia Kime 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.”

In addition to VA coverage for the diseases, Tester secured an amendment to allow veterans to access their toxic exposure records online from VA or the Defense Department.

On Tuesday, the Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and 28 other veteran and military groups wrote a letter to top lawmakers asking them to support the amendments from Tester and Harder.

“We call on you to lead and pass House Amendment 264 into law and end the waiting for many of our nation’s ill veterans so they can receive disability benefits,” the letter read. “There is more work to be done to care for those who are ill from toxic exposures, including adopting hypertension as a presumptive disease … but with your leadership, tens of thousands of Vietnam War veterans will receive their benefits and justice.”So far, the House and Senate have both passed their respective versions of the fiscal year 2021 defense spending bill, sending them up the chain. Committees in both chambers are currently working on rules for negotiating and amending the bills before they’re opened up to the full floors for debate.

The amendments will have to survive that process before they receive a vote to make it into a final version of the bill.