Democrats in the Senate blasted White House and other officials, accusing them of "turning your backs on Vietnam vets who are suffering."
Two years ago, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin decided to add more diseases to VA's list of health concerns that qualify a veteran for Agent Orange disability benefits, but, as first reported by Military Times' Patricia Kime last week, White House officials stood in Shulkin's way, according to documents obtained by a veteran through the Freedom of Information Act.
Senate Veterans Affairs Ranking Member Jon Tester, D-Mont., and other senators on Thursday sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget Affairs, urging its director and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mich Mulvaney to stop blocking the inclusion of four diseases: bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, Parkinson's and hypertension.
An Institute of Medicine report in 2016 found evidence that bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease have likely links to the toxic herbicide. In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences found evidence linking hypertension, or high blood pressure, to Agent Orange as well.
Expanding the list of health conditions presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure could provide disability pay and health benefits to more than 80,000 veterans, according to a news release from the senators.
"No more excuses," the senators wrote in their letter.
"Stop turning your backs on thousands of Vietnam-era veterans across the country who are suffering — and dying— from significant health conditions directly associated with their service to our nation and their exposure to toxic herbicides. Stop denying the overwhelming scientific evidence provided to you by countless veterans and medical experts — the same evidence cited by the previous VA secretary, who attempted to add these medical conditions to the presumptive list more than two years ago. These veterans and their families have already sacrificed a great deal. They should not be forced to wait one minute longer.”
Earlier this year, Veterans Health Administration acting head Dr. Richard Stone told Congress VA "hoped" to make a decision on those illnesses "within 90 days," which was previously reported by Connecting Vets.
That deadline has long passed. It's been seven months, and thousands of veterans are still waiting for VA to deliver on its promise.
Attempts by Connecting Vets to get an update from VA officials on whether the department had a forthcoming decision are consistently met with the same statement: "VA has no announcements on Agent Orange presumptive conditions at this time."
Veterans service organizations last week decried the news that the White House could be responsible for the delays.
“Every time we send our men and women to war we end up deliberating for decades as to whether or not they were exposed to toxic chemicals. This type of absurdity must stop," said Patrick Murray, deputy director of VFW National Legislative Service.
"The VFW is extremely upset and dissatisfied with the backdoor political games that are being played in Washington as the lives of our veterans are at stake,” VFW National Commander William “Doc” Schmitz said. “The health and welfare of our nation’s veterans should, and must, be our number one priority.”
"It’s time for the secretary to follow the scientific recommendations of the National Academies, add these four new presumptives and end the wait for thousands of Vietnam veterans suffering and dying from Agent Orange-related diseases," DAV National Commander Stephen Whitehead said.
Vietnam Veterans of America National President John Rowan said VVA holds "the Office of Management and Budget and its director culpable in the deaths of those Vietnam veterans who went to their graves waiting for their government to do the right thing and grant service-connection for exposure to Agent Orange and other rainbow agents, as recommended by the VA secretary based on findings of the Institute of Medicine."