The Senate advanced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act Wednesday that would force the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand benefits for more Agent Orange-linked diseases, bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson's.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, proposed the amendment to the annual defense spending bill and on Wednesday it received more than the 60 votes needed to make it into the massive must-pass omnibus annual bill that sets the budget, and some policy, for the Defense Department. Since the bill is one of those all but guaranteed to pass in recent years, it's prime real estate for major military and veterans legislation, including on toxic exposure.
"Justice is long overdue for the veterans currently suffering and dying ... This administration has refused to expand the list of presumptive conditions. They don't seem to think exposure to these toxic chemicals in Vietnam is a cost of war. Let me tell you -- they're wrong and it is," Tester said on the Senate floor before the vote.
The Senate voted 94-6, with six Republicans voting against it -- Mike Braun of Indiana, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rick Scott of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas.
Tester's amendment folds his Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act into the larger defense bill. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said earlier this month that the measure "will pass" and "we're about to win this fight" which could expand benefits to more than 22,000 veterans. At least 83,000 Vietnam veterans have been diagnosed with bladder cancer, hypothyroidism or Parkinson's-like symptoms, though some of them are already receiving VA benefits for other service-connected illnesses or injuries.
"This administration wants to outlive the Vietnam veterans and they don't want to pay," Tester said on the floor. "No more waiting, no more trying to outlive the Vietnam veterans. Today we have the opportunity to end the needless suffering."
As lawmakers in both chambers reconcile their separate versions on the massive defense spending bill, Tester's amendment still faces a long legislative road and must survive long enough to be included in the final joint bill sent to the president later this year.
Tester told reporters he had faith it would survive negotiations.
"If it doesn't make it through conference, I'll be surprised," he said.
So far, VA covers 14 illnesses linked to the toxic herbicide used during the Vietnam War. But VA leaders have resisted or delayed adding four additional illnesses -- hypertension (high blood pressure), bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism, leaving thousands of aging and ill veterans without disability benefits for those issues.
The U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons of multiple herbicides over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, including Agent Orange.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has said repeatedly he disagreed with National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine scientists' findings in 2016 and 2018 that link Agent Orange exposure to the four diseases, a decision VA says could cost from $11.2 billion to $15.2 billion.
Lawmakers and veterans' groups have for months repeatedly called on Wilkie and the White House to extend benefits and help an aging population of veterans and their families. So far, Wilkie has said he awaits the results of VA's in-house studies. The White House has been silent, lawmakers, Congressional staff and VSOs told Connecting Vets.
Wilkie said he would likely not make a decision on his own on expanding benefits for the four illnesses until "late 2020."
Lawmakers advocating for the change have said they're also aiming to add a fourth illness -- hypertension -- to VA's list of covered Agent Orange-linked diseases, but that illness is one that has faced the most opposition from VA leaders and lawmakers concerned with cost of extending benefits to as many as 200,000 more veterans. Hypertension did not make it into Tester's amendment.
The Senate's vote came days after House lawmakers on the Rules Committee refused to include a similar measure in that chamber's version of the defense bill. Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., introduced the House amendment to expand VA benefits, but it was not ruled in order by the Rules Committee so it was not included in a package of hundreds of amendments sent to the floor. So, the House version of the NDAA passed Tuesday with a veto-proof majority, but lacked the amendment.
Sources with knowledge of negotiations told Connecting Vets cost was a leading factor in the decision not to move the House version of the amendment forward, but said advocates hoped the Senate version would get the 60 votes necessary. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.
Previous attempts have been made to expand Agent Orange benefits for these diseases.
In 2017, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin decided to add more diseases to the VA's list of health concerns that qualify a veteran for Agent Orange disability benefits. According to documents obtained by a veteran through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to Connecting Vets, White House officials stood in Shulkin's way expressing concern about the cost of covering additional diseases and requesting more research. Military Times' Patricia Kime first reported on the documents.
A list of the diseases currently linked to Agent Orange and eligible for benefits can be found here.