Senators urge VA to add hypertension to list of illnesses caused by Agent Orange

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 26, 2021

WASHINGTON — The leaders of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee urged the Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday to add hypertension to the list of conditions presumed to be caused by Agent Orange — a move that would grant eligibility for VA benefits to about 160,000 veterans.

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., wrote to new VA Secretary Denis McDonough asking him to exercise his authority on the issue. Vietnam War veterans have been waiting years for the VA to recognize a link between hypertension and exposure to chemical herbicides during the war.

“More than fifty years have passed since Vietnam veterans served and sacrificed for this nation, many of whom continue to suffer the damaging effects of their exposure to Agent Orange,” the senators wrote. “There is no time for further delay, our veterans deserve transparent communication and decisive action.”

During McDonough’s first news briefing with reporters this week, he said he felt the urgency to act on the issue. He vowed to look at the scientific evidence, rather than the cost. The VA previously estimated that the addition of hypertension to the presumptive list would cost more than $11 billion over the next 10 years.

“Inevitably, people focus first on cost,” McDonough said. “I want to focus first on the facts and on the data and what we know.”

Researchers with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found for the first time in 2018 that “sufficient” evidence exists to link hypertension to Agent Orange exposure. Since then, advocates have pushed the VA to add the condition to the list of presumptive conditions, which would lower the amount of proof veterans must provide in order to receive VA benefits.

The VA secretary has the power to add conditions to the presumptive list. After the National Academies released their finding in 2018, former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said that he wouldn’t make a decision about the condition until the end of 2020, when the results of two more scientific studies on the issue were expected to be published. The VA later said that the coronavirus pandemic had delayed the studies until mid-2021.

Tester and Moran asked McDonough on Friday to determine whether the additional studies were necessary. They also asked that he work with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to create fair, transparent process for illness to be added to the list of presumptive conditions in the future.

“Veterans deserve an enduring framework, supported by science, that utilizes a fair and transparent process set up to serve them for generations to come,” the senators wrote. “We welcome your collaboration with our committee to establish that framework.”

At the end of last year, Congress passed a measure approving benefits for Vietnam War veterans suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like symptoms — all conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure. The change effects about 34,000 veterans suffering from the conditions.

The measure now falls to McDonough to implement. He said this week he was building a timeline for implementation.

“I feel some urgency because it’s statute, and one of the things I committed to was implementing the statutory changes consistent with the intent of Congress,” McDonough said. “We’re continuing to be under the gun on that, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling