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VA to publish new Agent Orange rules on Tuesday

Officials from the Deparment of Veterans Affairs held a conference call this morning to outline details of the new Agent Orange Rules to be published tomorrow. The information was designed to explain the timeline for veterans seeking new disability claims, but also to defend the department against inevitable attacks from Congress over the changes.

Under the new rules three illnesses previously suspected of having links to Agent Orange exposure -- Parkinson’s Disease, Hairy Cell and other types of chronic, b-cell leukemia, and Ischemic Heart Disease -- will be treated as "presumptive" illnesses. Veterans who can show both a diagnosis of those medical problems and exposure to the chemical defoliant will no longer have to prove a connection between the two facts to receive compensation.

Veterans will have to show at least 10 percent disability as a result of the illness to claim any compensation, however. Still, Vietnam Veterans of America government relations director Rick Weidman called the move an important step forward which could benefit hundreds of thousands of suffering veterans.

The VA estimates that about 150,000 Vietnam-era veterans will apply for the benefits over the next 18 months, and another 90,000 who've had their Agent-Orange-related claims rejected in recent years will get their files reviewed.

Several lawmakers have voiced concern that the new illnesses -- Ischemic Heart Disease in particular -- are more closely related to age than chemical exposure, and the VA is being overly generous in awarding disability payments for the illnesses. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is expected to testify before the Senate Armed Services on the issue next month.

But on Tuesday VA officials emphasized that the rule change was the result of scientific research and established procedures, not simply a response to veterans' lobbying. Victoria Cassano, director of the VA's radiation and physical exposures department, said more than enough credible scientific evidence exists to support the change, listing a host of medical journals and research papers linking the illnesses to chemical exposure.

Expect to hear Shinseki focus largely on that research when lawmakers ask about the long-term costs of providing care for those illnesses. The first year of claims alone is expected to cost $13.4 billion, and total $42.2 billion over 10 years.

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