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VA delays decision to add more diseases to Agent Orange list

A U.S. Huey helicopter sprays Agent Orange over Vietnam.

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 2, 2019

Note: This article has been corrected.

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs missed a self-imposed deadline at the end of June to decide whether to add conditions to the list of diseases presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure.

Researchers with the National Academy of Medicine released a report in November stating there was “suggestive” evidence that eight diseases — prostate cancer, bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, stroke, early-onset peripheral neuropathy, AL amyloidosis, ischemic heart disease and Parkinson-like syndromes — could be caused by Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide used during the Vietnam War. They also found “sufficient” evidence linking the tactical herbicide to hypertension.

Under questioning at a Senate hearing in March, Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, vowed to review the report and to decide this summer whether to add to the list of presumptive conditions. The list currently covers 14 diseases and gives veterans who suffer from them a fast track to disability compensation.

“We’re working our way through that right now, and it would be my hope that within the next 90 days, we’ll have some decisions made,” Stone said March 26.

More than three months later, the VA hasn’t made any decisions.

“VA has no announcements on Agent Orange presumptive conditions at this time,” a VA spokeswoman said Monday.

Army veteran Jerry Foreman of Montrose, Ark., heard Stone’s promise this spring and has been waiting for the VA’s decision.

Foreman, 72, served in Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group and retired from the Army as a captain after 21 years. In the past several years, he’s developed hypertension and Parkinson-like tremors.

He has a VA disability rating of 20% for tinnitus and diabetes, and gets about $280 in benefits each month. If hypertension and Parkinson-like syndromes were added to the presumptive list, he guesses he would receive a “significant” increase.

“The National Academy — they’ve recommended that all these be put forward, but it just doesn’t seem to be working,” Foreman said. “We’re on hold … it really makes you kind of angry. We need some kind of accountability in the VA.”

Foreman, as well as other veterans and families, has been tracking the slow progress on these conditions.

In 2017, former VA Secretary David Shulkin recommended to the Office of Management and Budget that several of the conditions be added to the presumptive list. The recommendation didn’t make it any further.

“They’re going to say it costs too much money,” said Rick Weidman, executive director of policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America. “Well, you should’ve thought about that before you put poisons on people.”

Martha Edgin, the wife of a Vietnam veteran with bladder cancer, has spent years researching and applying to the VA. Based in Norman, Okla., Edgin repeatedly has contacted the VA and the Office of Management and Budget, in addition to her congressional delegation and anyone else she believes might know something about when — or whether — bladder cancer would get approved for the list.

Edgin described the most recent delay as “shameful and unconscionable.” It creates a “lack of trust” for the VA among veterans and their families, she said.

“The saying that so many veterans believe is, ‘Deny, deny until they die,’ ” Edgin said. “In my opinion, Secretary [Robert] Wilkie needs to step up to the plate and say, ‘Enough,’ as should President [Donald] Trump. Immediately addressing this issue would go a long way in restoring a little faith in the system.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Correction: Rick Weidman was misidentified as the president of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He's the executive director of policy and government affairs for the organization.

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