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Advocates begin 'final push' to get benefits for Vietnam War veterans

Bobby Daniels, foreground, and other veterans await the start of a Sept, 24, 2019 Capitol Hill press conference during which lawmakers and veterans urged urged the administration to provide health care and benefits to Vietnam-era veterans living with the effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 20, 2020

WASHINGTON — National veterans organizations launched a “final push” Thursday for Congress to grant Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to tens of thousands of Vietnam War veterans believed to be suffering the effects of Agent Orange.

The effort, led by Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., is designed to put pressure on lawmakers to publicly support the Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act. The measure was added to the Senate’s annual defense bill last month but didn’t make it into the House’s version because of cost concerns, Harder said. It must survive negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers before becoming law.

“People on the other side of this issue, their position is so indefensible that they don’t want to be seen fighting against this,” Harder said Thursday on a call with veterans groups. “Our job is to draw them out and shine sunlight on this issue.”

The bill would approve benefits for Vietnam War veterans suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like symptoms — conditions thought to be caused by exposure to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange. The bill would add the diseases to the VA presumptive list, which lowers the amount of proof veterans must provide in order to receive VA benefits.

Navy veteran Lyle Ducheneaux, who spoke on the call Thursday, served as a machinist mate aboard the USS Blue Ridge during the Vietnam War. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2015, making him one of five veterans from his division that have the disease, he said. Ducheneaux has undergone two operations and multiple treatments. He’s relapsed twice.

Ducheneaux applied for VA benefits but was rejected. He’s appealed that decision multiple times and is now waiting for his case to be heard by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

“I’m now on my third or fourth denial,” he said. “I lost track of how many times at this point. Last time I checked, I’m number 125,800 on the docket to be reevaluated again. If I’m not dead by that time, well… something might come of it.”

Harder said he wants Ducheneaux’s story – and others like it – to get the attention of lawmakers who are against the measure.

“I want to make sure everybody understands what’s at stake here,” Harder said. “Everybody talks a big game about helping veterans, but congressmen and senators of both parties have failed to provide the support our veterans deserve.”

Harder plans to send a letter this week to the House lawmakers who were selected to negotiate on the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. The letter asks them to include the measure in the final version of the defense bill.

Further, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America and Military Officers Association of America tasked their members with calling their representatives and urging their support.

“With this NDAA, we have an incredible opportunity to make things right,” said retired Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, CEO of Military Officers Association of America. “Veterans suffering now can’t wait for further studies like the VA has proposed, nor should they have to.”

While the VA secretary has the power to add the conditions to the presumptive list, Robert Wilkie said earlier this year that he wouldn’t make a decision about the conditions until at least the end of 2020, , when results of two more scientific studies on the issue are expected to be published.

Advocates, however, think there is already enough evidence.

In 2018, researchers with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine determined there was “suggestive” evidence linking Agent Orange exposure to hypothyroidism.

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

Previous efforts were made by former VA secretaries to add the conditions. Under former VA Secretary David Shulkin, the agency recommended in 2016 the addition of bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like tremors to the presumptive list. Shulkin’s recommendation never made it past OMB. Lawmakers were told at the time that OMB was waiting on the results of more scientific studies.

OMB and Mick Mulvaney, its director at the time, objected to the recommendation. In addition to a lack of scientific evidence, OMB had concerns about the budget implications of expanding access to VA benefits to the thousands of veterans diagnosed with the conditions, Military Times reported, citing emails between Shulkin and OMB.

Seven national veterans groups wrote to President Donald Trump in February and asked him to intervene. They criticized the VA for dragging its feet.

It’s uncertain when negotiations on the annual defense measure will be finalized, but it’s likely to happen around the end of the year, Harder said. Trump has threatened to veto the bill if it includes language that would remove Confederate names from military installations.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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