- This story contains corrected material.
WASHINGTON — Senators posed tough questions to Veterans Affairs officials Thursday over the decision to compensate thousands of veterans for additional illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, but the lawmakers said they will not push to revoke those payments.
Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said the hearing was not about the costs of care but instead about making sure the process for approving service-connected presumptive illnesses is sound. And he warned that the issue likely will become more controversial in coming years, with debate over illnesses connected to burn-pit exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans already underway.
“We made a promise to care for service-related injuries, and we will keep our promise to veterans,” Akaka said. “But we must ensure the processes in place give the VA appropriate authority to react in the future.”
Last October, health officials added three ailments to the list of “presumptive illnesses” linked to Agent Orange, a nickname for a host of herbicides used widely during the Vietnam War.
As a result, veterans who served in Vietnam and later developed those conditions — Parkinson’s disease, hairy cell leukemia and ischemic heart disease — will not have to prove any connection between their sickness and their military service when filing a health benefits claim.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., noted that the changes could award compensation to thousands of new veterans even though questions linger about whether the illnesses might be linked more closely with aging than chemical exposure. Veterans Affairs officials estimate that about 250,000 veterans could be due compensation.
According to VA estimates, the move could cost more than $13 billion in compensation payouts in the next 18 months.
Veterans groups have hailed the decision as a long-overdue recognition of the impact of the defoliants used in Vietnam, and defended the department’s process.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki defended the decision to add the illnesses to the presumptive list, citing nine scientific studies finding a higher risk of contracting the sicknesses for those exposed to Agent Orange. He also noted that a similar push to add hypertension to the list was dropped because of a lack of medical evidence supporting such a move.
“These decisions were not made lightly,” he said. “Veterans and their families have waited decades while science has revealed new details about Agent Orange exposure.
“We have veterans who are suffering from these diseases, and the presumption allows us to bring them into the VA for treatment.”