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Democrats accuse Trump of 'stonewalling' benefits tied to Agent Orange for Vietnam vets

A U.S. Huey helicopter sprays Agent Orange over Vietnam. Those who served “in-country” in Vietnam enjoy a nearly automatic VA presumption that they were exposed to these herbicides, sometimes popularly called “Agent Orange.” Those who served in Thailand are offered no such presumption.

U.S. ARMY

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 14, 2020

WASHINGTON — More than 100 Democrats in Congress accused President Donald Trump this week of stonewalling benefits for thousands of Vietnam War veterans.

The lawmakers, 44 in the Senate and 78 in the House, urged Trump to add four conditions to a list of diseases presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide used in Vietnam. The addition would create a fast track to benefits for veterans suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, hypertension and Parkinson’s-like symptoms.

The conditions have yet to be added to the list, despite reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2016 and 2018 that described a connection between the diseases and Agent Orange exposure.

“For far too long, your administration has stonewalled extending critical benefits to gravely ill veterans whose service in Vietnam exposed them to Agent Orange,” the senators’ letter starts. “Instead of justice, these Vietnam veterans have been subject to additional and unwarranted delays.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., led Democrats in condemning the administration Wednesday. On the House side, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, encouraged 77 other lawmakers to send their own letter Wednesday.

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The letters followed one sent Monday by seven of the country’s largest veterans organizations, which also urged Trump to fast-track the benefits after years of delays.

In 2018, researchers with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found for the first time that enough evidence exists to link hypertension to Agent Orange exposure. Researchers also determined there was “suggestive” evidence linking Agent Orange to hypothyroidism.

A 2016 report from the academies determined that there also was suggestive evidence linking Agent Orange to bladder cancer. That year, the academies clarified that Parkinson-like symptoms should be considered as part of Parkinson’s disease, which is on the list of presumptive diseases.

The agency recommended in 2016, under the leadership of then-VA Secretary David Shulkin, that bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like tremors be added to the presumptive list. Shulkin’s recommendation never made it past the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

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Lawmakers were told at the time that the Office of Management and Budget was waiting on the results of more scientific studies. However, recent reports indicate the office and its then-director, Mick Mulvaney, objected to the recommendation in part because of the budgetary implications of expanding VA benefits to more veterans.

Congress passed legislation at the end of 2019 that required the VA to explain its stance on the four conditions.

In the VA’s report, recently shared with Congress, the agency estimated about 191,000 veterans and survivors would be eligible for the benefits in the first year. The total cost of benefits in one year would range from $1.3 billion to $3.5 billion, the agency estimated. The number of beneficiaries could rise to more than 2.1 million over a five-year period, and the cost could add up to $15.2 billion.

In its explanation for not immediately adding the four conditions, the VA argued there were “limitations” in the findings from National Academies researchers. The earliest that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie would consider adding the four conditions was late 2020, the VA said, when the results of two more scientific studies into the conditions are expected to be published.

Senate Democrats said the VA had “questioned the value” of the evidence provided by the National Academies. Those reports typically have been the standard for establishing service-connected diseases, they argued.

“It is now clear that your administration is intent on changing the rules at the eleventh hour and forcing veterans … to meet a different — perhaps unattainable — standard,” the senators wrote. “This is unacceptable.”

Similarly, House Democrats accused Trump’s administration of creating a more stringent standard for these veterans.

“We disagree with [Wilkie’s] choice to delay further and believe a well-supported decision can, and should, be made today,” the House letter reads.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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