Vets with bladder cancer could wait years for government to recognize Agent Orange link
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 21, 2018
WASHINGTON — Vietnam War veteran Robert Lytle was diagnosed in 2009 with bladder cancer, a disease that he believes — and science now suggests — is linked to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange.
In the past nine years, Lytle has undergone three surgeries. Doctors removed eight malignant tumors from his bladder. The Department of Veterans Affairs has denied his requests for disability compensation three times.
“I volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1970,” said Lytle, now 70 and living in Metter, Ga. “That wasn’t the coolest thing. That didn’t get you a lot of dates. I just feel like… I just feel they owe me.”
The federal government is considering whether to add bladder cancer to a list of diseases presumed to be caused by Agent Orange, but veterans might wait another two years before a decision is reached.
VA leadership informed the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last week that the government is waiting on results of two studies, the second of which isn’t expected to be complete until 2020, committee staff said.
For Lytle and other veterans and their families, it’s already been a long wait.
In March 2016, the National Academy of Medicine released new research that for the first time recognized evidence exists of a link between bladder cancer and Agent Orange. The report stated there was “limited or suggestive” evidence of a connection – an upgrade from “inadequate or insufficient.”
It took 20 months before the VA sent a recommendation to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget in November 2017 that bladder cancer and three other illnesses be added to a list of diseases presumed to be caused by Agent Orange. The other ailments are hypothyroidism, Parkinson’s-like tremors and hypertension.
There are 14 diseases on the list, and veterans suffering from them are allowed a fast-track to monthly compensation.
“I have transmitted my recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget. I did that by Nov. 1,” former VA Secretary David Shulkin said in March during a Senate hearing. “And we are in the process right now of going through this data. In fact, they asked for some additional data to be able to work through the process and be able to get financial estimates for this. So, we are committed to working with OMB to get this resolved in the very near future.”
Seven months after the VA sent its recommendation, some veterans are now speaking out, wondering why the Office of Management and Budget hasn’t issued a decision.
The White House recently referred questions about the issue to a spokesman with the Office of Management and Budget, who did not return multiple requests for comment. A VA spokesman only said the agency had no announcements to make regarding their recommendation to OMB.
VA officials told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that they are waiting for results of ongoing mortality and morbidity studies, which could provide more evidence of a connection between the diseases and Agent Orange. Committee staff said the first of those studies will be complete in spring of fiscal year 2019, the other in fiscal 2020.
Martha Edgin, the wife of a Vietnam veteran with bladder cancer, has contacted the VA and Office of Management and Budget in the past several months, in addition to congressional offices and anyone else she thinks might know something about when — or whether — it will get approved.
“I have emailed. I have telephoned. I have texted. I have done about everything,” Edgin said. “It kind of became my mission.”
Edgin, 73, and her husband, Jerry, live in Norman, Okla. Jerry Edgin, 74, was a Marine corporal in Vietnam.
In 2013, Jerry Edgin went into the doctor for a checkup and was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Martha Edgin immediately went to work researching whether there was a connection to his military service.
Marth Edgin had retired from her teaching career by then. Researching, documenting and applying to the VA quickly became her full-time job.
The couple was denied twice before they recruited the help of an attorney and the office of Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. The VA approved their third claim – but not for Agent Orange. Instead, they accepted the 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 are struggling. She’s continuing to research and push the VA so others can get approved for disability compensation, too.
“I just think it should be the same for everybody across the board,” she said. “If it was definitely from Agent Orange, then all the men and women who have developed bladder cancer should be approved also.”
Edgin said she’s always maintained hope the government would add bladder cancer to the list of Agent Orange illnesses – until the last few weeks. Now, with further delays and silence from federal agencies, she’s not so certain.
“Over the last week, I thought, ‘It’s not going to happen,’” she said. “I’ve never felt that way.”
Lytle, who was an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, thought the report from National Academy of Medicine meant he would quickly be made eligible for VA benefits.
In March, he sent in his third claim expecting it to get approved. His denial letter arrived in May.
“The VA has gotten a lot better. But from this aspect, it’s broken,” Lytle said. “Fair is fair, and it’s not fair.”