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NDAA would add three conditions to VA list of illnesses caused by Agent Orange

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

U.S. ARMY

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 10, 2020

WASHINGTON — A measure was included in the final version of the defense bill to grant Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to tens of thousands of Vietnam War veterans believed to be suffering the effects of Agent Orange. 

A group of lawmakers Wednesday finalized the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, a policy and spending bill for the Defense Department that passes through Congress every year. It’s a compromise between separate versions of the bill passed earlier this year by the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House.  

The final version includes a measure that 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 provision would add the diseases to the VA presumptive list, which lowers the amount of proof veterans must provide in order to receive VA benefits. 

The measure was included in the Senate version of the defense bill earlier this year but was omitted from the House bill. Congressional negotiators decided to include it in the final bill, said Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., both of whom sponsored the measures.

“This is an incredible day for veterans who have waited decades to get the care they deserve — Congress has spent years paying lip service to vets, but thanks to our bipartisan efforts we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Harder said.  

President Donald Trump, however, has threatened to veto the $740 billion legislation because it does not include a measure to repeal a legal protection for social media companies. Republicans and Democrats have objected to his veto threat. Tester, who pushed to include the measure for Vietnam War vets, urged Trump to sign the legislation. 

“It’s my hope that both the House and Senate can quickly move this bill to the President, and that he signs it into law without any delay,” Tester said. “These Vietnam veterans have already waited long enough.” 

The VA secretary has the power to add the conditions to the presumptive list. However, Secretary 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 were expected to be published.The VA told Military.com last week that the coronavirus pandemic had delayed the studies until mid-2021.  

Advocates believe there already is 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’s-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 the Office of Management and Budget. 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 Trump in February and asked him to intervene. They criticized the VA for dragging its feet. In August, the organizations held an event they described as a “final push” to get the measure added to the National Defense Authorization Act.  

Navy veteran Lyle Ducheneaux, who spoke at the event, 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 who 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 has appealed that decision multiple times and is 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.” 

Tester’s office estimated there are about 34,000 Vietnam War veterans who are suffering from the three conditions and could be eligible for benefits if the defense bill is signed into law.  

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling