Connecting Vets: Senators urge care expansion for thousands more veterans sick from Agent Orange

by Abbie Bennett

Senators are upping the pressure on Congressional leaders to ensure a measure that would expand care to thousands more veterans sick from Agent Orange makes it into the annual national defense bill.

A bipartisan group of 45 senators led by Jon Tester, D-Montana, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, is calling on Senate and House Armed Services leaders to adopt an amendment to add three more diseases to the Department of Veterans Affairs list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange.

That list of “presumptive” conditions includes all of the illnesses VA recognizes as service-connected diseases related to the toxic herbicide and therefore provides coverage and benefits for. The three illnesses senators are pushing to include are bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism and adding them to the list could provide care to more than 34,000 veterans.

Tester and the 45 other senators sent letters this week to Armed Services leaders in both chambers of Congress urging them to include the measure in the final draft of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). That massive must-pass annual defense spending and policy bill is all but guaranteed to pass in recent years and is prime real estate for major military and veterans legislation, including on toxic exposure.

“It is time for Congress to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence put forth by veterans, scientists and medical experts, and to end the wait for more than 34,000 frustrated and desperate veterans living with and dying from these health conditions,” senators wrote. “Inclusion of this legislation… would be consistent with scientific and historic precedent, and is simply the right thing to do for these veterans and their families.”

Lawmakers are set to negotiate House and Senate versions of that consequential bill in an effort to reach a compromise and vote on the massive legislation package in November or December.

The senators said in their letter that even that may be too long for some veterans to wait, but it’s the best chance for lawmakers to pass the expansion ahead of a major election and dwindling legislative days before the end of this session of Congress. The Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act was passed as an amendment to the NDAA by the Senate overwhelmingly in a 94-6 vote in July, but it remains to be seen if it will make it into the final bill.

Six Republicans voted against the effort — Mike Braun of Indiana, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rick Scott of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas. The Senate’s vote came days after House lawmakers on the Rules Committee refused to include a similar measure in that chamber’s draft defense bill. Rep. Josh Harder, D-California, introduced the amendment, and sources with knowledge of the negotiations told Connecting Vets cost was a leading factor in the decision not to move the House amendment forward. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.

Tester said he was confident his measure would survive conference negotiations on the larger defense bill.

“If it doesn’t make it through conference, I’ll be surprised,” he said in July.

“Tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans suffer from these three conditions due to their military service, yet these veterans continue to be denied the care and benefits they have earned and desperately need,” the senators wrote in their letter.

Leaders of many of the national veteran service organizations and other advocates signed on to support the effort, including Disabled American Veterans, Wounded Warrior Project, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, the American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Military Officers Association of America.

“The truth is that more and more veterans are dying every single day because this administration refuses to do the right thing and pay for the cost of war,” Tester said. “I’ll be continuing to fight tooth and nail until we push this bill across the finish line on behalf of the thousands of veterans who are being ignored.”

The U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons of multiple herbicides over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, including Agent Orange.

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 hypertension (high blood pressure), bladder cancer, hypothyrodism and Parkinsonism, a decision VA says could cost from $11.2 billion to $15.2 billion.

Lawmakers and veterans’ groups have for months repeatedly called on 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. Those studies are due out late this year, Wilkie said previously. The White House has been silent, lawmakers, Congressional staff and VSOs told Connecting Vets.

Lawmakers advocating for the change have said they’re also aiming to add the fourth illness — hypertension — to VA’s list of covered Agent Orange-linked diseases, but that illness is one that has faced the most opposition from VA leaders and lawmakers concerned with cost of extending benefits to as many as 200,000 more veterans. Hypertension did not make it into Tester’s measure.

Previous attempts have been made to expand Agent Orange benefits for these diseases.

In 2017, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin decided to add more diseases to the VA’s list of Agent Orange presumptives. 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. Patricia Kime first reported on the documents for Military Times.

In March 2019, Veterans Health Administration acting head Dr. Richard Stone told Congress VA “hoped” to make a decision on those illnesses “within 90 days,” but that time came and passed and no decision was made.

Attempts by Connecting Vets to get an update from VA officials on whether the department had a forthcoming decision or results of its studies have consistently been met with the same statement: “VA has no announcements on changes to the list of Agent Orange-related presumptive conditions.”

VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets Thursday that the department is still awaiting the results of its two studies: the Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study and the Vietnam Era Mortality Study, which “will guide decisions on this issue.

“VA is committed to regular review of all emerging evidence of adverse impacts to veterans from Agent Orange, but the department will not be announcing new presumptive conditions until this additional research is complete to support an informed decision,” Noel said.

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