Connecting Vets: Lawmakers make final push to expand care for thousands more veterans sick from Agent Orange

by Abbie Bennett

More than 100 more members of Congress are pushing their colleagues to expand care for Vietnam veterans ill from Agent Orange exposure in the final defense spending and policy bill.

Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., sent a letter along with 111 other lawmakers urging the Congress members set to negotiate the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week to include his measure that would expand care for thousands of Vietnam veterans “left behind by VA.” 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 exposures.

On the Senate side, another bipartisan group, this time 45 senators led by Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called on Senate and House Armed Services leaders to adopt the same amendment to add three more diseases to the Department of Veterans Affairs list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange to the NDAA in September.

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 lawmakers 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.

“This is the last chance that members of both parties have to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to veterans,” Harder said. “There’s a lot of happy talk when it comes to helping vets – but unless we actually provide the support these folks need, the words are empty.”

Harder’s Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act would add those conditions and allow veterans with them to access VA benefits. The bill was included in the Senate’s draft of the NDAA, but not the House. To become law, it has to be included as an amendment to the final version House and Senate lawmakers are negotiating. The goal of that negotiation is to settle on a final unified bill Congress can vote to advance to the president this month or next.

Lawmakers said in their letter that even that may be too long for some veterans to wait, but it’s the best chance for Congress to pass the expansion with 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.

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 the amendment would make it into the final version and would be surprised if lawmakers on the conference committee stripped it out.

“This is a top priority for many of our veterans and their families,” lawmakers wrote in their letter this week. “Our Vietnam veterans should not have to wait any longer for the recognition they deserve and the benefits they are owed. Ensuring this bipartisan and bicameral amendment remains in the final NDAA bill will mean that thousands of veterans will finally get the support they need due to their sacrifice and service.”

The United States 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.

“Despite the results shown by The National Academy of Medicine (NAM), which has found a link between these three conditions and exposure to Agent Orange, the VA claims there is not sufficient scientific evidence to add them to the list of presumptive conditions,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter this week.

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 the 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.

Since then, VA has not provided any update on that decision or the studies Wilkie said he is waiting for.

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