No decision from VA on Agent Orange benefits expansion until 'late 2020,' Wilkie says


Tens of thousands of veterans ill and dying from Agent Orange exposure are still waiting on the Department of Veterans Affairs to decide whether it will provide them or their families compensation.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a letter last month he won’t make a decision until late 2020 at the earliest

Within the massive 1,700-page federal funding bill Congress passed and the president signed last month, Congress ordered VA to reveal its plans to add four new diseases to the list of conditions veterans experience that are presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure. 

Those four diseases are bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, hypertension and Parkinson’s-like symptoms. 

Congress is requiring VA to provide a detailed explanation for the years-long delay in making a decision on whether to cover those illnesses, along with a cost estimate and a specific date when VA expects the changes to go into effect. 

A letter from Wilkie to Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Ranking Member Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., dated Dec. 20, 2019 echoes what Wilkie told reporters last year -- he’s chosen to delay his decision.

“I have decided to wait for the results of the … two studies currently being carried out by VA’s Office of Research and Development,” Wilkie wrote in the letter obtained by Connecting Vets.

  • The Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study: A study that began in 2014 to analyze overall health of Vietnam-era veterans, including a survey fo 45,000 randomly selected veterans of the 9.9 million who served from 1961-75. The survey was fielded in 2016-17 and the results “are now being analyzed and prepared for submission to peer-reviewed literature in 2020,” Wilkie wrote. 
  • The Vietnam Era Mortality Study: An analysis comparing overall mortality and specific causes of death between Vietnam theater and era veterans to standard U.S. civilian deaths. That study is expected to be completed and available for peer review and publication in “late 2020,” Wilkie wrote.

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 the toxic herbicide as well.

“The longer VA continues to drag its feet on expanding the list of conditions associated with Agent Orange, the longer our veterans continue to suffer -- and die -- as a result of their exposure,” Tester said in a statement to Connecting Vets. “It’s time for VA to stop ignoring the overwhelming evidence put forth by scientists, medical experts and veterans and do right by those who served. Any prolonging of their suffering is unacceptable.” 

Two years ago, 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 first reported on the documents.  

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. 

Expanding the list of health conditions presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure could provide disability pay and health benefits to more than 83,000 veterans.

Repeated attempts by Connecting Vets to get an update from VA officials on whether the department had a forthcoming decision have been consistently met with the same statement: "VA has no announcements on Agent Orange presumptive conditions at this time." 

A list of the diseases currently linked to Agent Orange and eligible for benefits can be found here

Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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