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Congress to finally consider adding four conditions to Agent Orange list

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 17, 2020

WASHINGTON – A measure to fast-track benefits to thousands of Vietnam War veterans was added to the annual defense budget this month, giving it an audience with Congress after years of effort.

The measure would approve benefits for Vietnam War veterans suffering form bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, hypertension 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 Department of Veterans Affairs presumptive list, which lowers the amount of proof veterans must provide in order to receive VA benefits.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., pushed to add the measure to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2021. The NDAA sets the Defense Department’s annual budget and includes a slew of policies for the Pentagon. It’s one of the only major bills that passes reliably through Congress each year, making it a desirable target for lawmakers to attach other measures.

“Justice is long overdue for our aging veterans currently dying from conditions resulting from their exposure to Agent Orange chemicals in Vietnam,” said Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “The reality is that taking care of our veterans is the cost of war — and it must be paid.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced his support for the measure this month. At a news conference on Long Island with Vietnam Veterans of America, Schumer said, “They risked their lives for us in an awful war. Now, they got these diseases because of exposure to Agent Orange. Are we going to back them up? And the answer finally is ‘yes.’” 

Veterans have been waiting years for the VA to add the conditions, despite some scientific evidence linking them to Agent Orange exposure.

Jerry Edgin, a Marine corporal in Vietnam, went into the doctor for a checkup in 2013 and was diagnosed with bladder cancer. His wife, Martha, began to research whether there was a connection to his military service. Researching, documenting and applying to the VA quickly became her full-time job.

The couple was denied for benefits twice. The third time, they were approved – but not because of exposure to Agent Orange. The VA accepted a link between Jerry Edgin’s bladder cancer and his exposure to diesel engine fumes in Vietnam.

Through her years of research, Martha Edgin met a community of people online who were struggling. Two years ago, she contacted the VA, the Office of Management and Budget, congressional offices and anyone else she thought might know something about when — or whether — the condition would get approved as a presumptive.

On Thursday, Edgin said she was thankful the issue was receiving attention in Congress.

“The longer it’s put off, the fewer veterans and their families will be alive to receive any benefits,” Edgin said in a message. “I plead with lawmakers to do the right thing, as they have suffered long enough without our government providing them the help they deserve.”

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. Researchers also 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.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie indicated earlier this year that he wasn’t likely to make a decision about the conditions until the end of 2020, when  results of two more scientific studies on the issue are expected to be published.

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

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.

Harder, who helped get the measure into the NDAA, said it was a “national shame” that the conditions weren’t already on the list.

“We have a real chance here to make this right after all this time,” Harder said in a statement. “We have a strong chance to finally get this done.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling
 

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