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

A U.S. Huey helicopter sprays Agent Orange over Vietnam. (U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie promised Thursday he's not stalling an effort to add four conditions to a list of diseases presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange – a move that would grant benefits to tens of thousands of Vietnam War veterans.

“I place significant emphasis on getting the presumptives for Agent Orange right,” Wilkie told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “That’s a promise to you. I am doing everything as diligently as I can.”

Some advocates and lawmakers have fought for years to create a fast-track to benefits for Vietnam War veterans suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, hypertension and Parkinson’s-like symptoms. The conditions have yet to be added to a list of diseases presumed to be caused by chemical herbicides used during the conflict, despite reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2016 and 2018 that described a connection between the diseases and Agent Orange exposure.

Wilkie faced questions Thursday from multiple Democrats who asked why the benefits hadn’t been granted and why they weren’t included in his testimony or President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget plan for the agency.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the committee chairman, said the omission “signals that this administration is not making progress on this matter.”

Earlier this month, more than 100 Democrats in Congress accused Trump of stonewalling the benefits and urged him to add them to the presumptive list. They haven’t received a response, Takano said.

Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., criticized the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

“This is an injustice. It’s an affront. I believe the responsibility lies with OMB, not with you,” he told Wilkie.

The agency recommended in 2016, under the leadership of then-VA Secretary David Shulkin, that bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like tremors be added to the presumptive list. Shulkin’s recommendation never made it past the OMB.

Lawmakers were told at the time that the OMB was waiting on the results of more scientific studies. However, recent reports indicate the office and its then-director, Mick Mulvaney, objected to the recommendation in part because of the budgetary implications of expanding VA benefits to more veterans.

The VA has estimated that about 191,000 veterans and survivors would be eligible for the benefits in the first year. The total cost of benefits in one year would range from $1.3 billion to $3.5 billion.

“It’s not like they’re pinching pennies throughout the VA or pinching pennies through the government,” Lamb said. “This is about making choices.”

Wilkie and Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, denied that they’ve made any recommendations based on the monetary cost.

“None of the decisions we’ve recommended to the secretary or have been recommended to OMB have been based on how much this costs,” Stone said. “This has to do with the science. And unfortunately, the science is difficult.”

In a previous explanation for not immediately adding the four conditions, the VA argued there were “limitations” in previous findings from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The earliest that Wilkie would consider adding the four conditions was late 2020, the VA has said, when the results of two more scientific studies are expected to be published.

“I know you’re working hard for these veterans and making the case. I can tell,” Lamb said. “So please don’t give up and try to convince these people over there, this is not about saving money. Our government sprayed these people with Agent Orange.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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