Senators urge VA to take 'decisive action' for 160,000 veterans with Agent Orange-linked hypertension

Huey Defoliation National Archives: 111-CC-59948, originally found in Box 1 Folder 9 of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Collection: Agent Orange
Huey Defoliation National Archives: 111-CC-59948, originally found in Box 1 Folder 9 of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Collection: Agent Orange Photo credit National Archives/Department of Veterans Affairs

Senators are once again urging Department of Veterans Affairs leaders to expand care and benefits to thousands more veterans ill from Agent Orange exposure. This time, for veterans with high blood pressure linked to the toxic herbicide.

Last year, Congress approved adding three new illnesses to a list of conditions VA recognizes as connected to Agent Orange and therefore provides care and benefits for -- bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson's-like symptoms. But just before leaving office in January, Trump administration VA officials said the about 34,000 veterans affected may not see benefits from Congress' action for months or even years.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, had been a fourth condition lawmakers, advocates and veterans pushed for Congress to include, but ultimately was left out, and Congressional staff with knowledge of those negotiations told Connecting Vets cost was a leading factor. Estimates suggest the expansion of benefits could cost as much as $11 billion to $15 billion over the first 10 years.

VA officials under the Trump administration argued against adding hypertension to the list because of continued doubts about its link to Agent Orange, despite the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2018 finding "sufficient" evidence to connect the two. VA argued it needed to continue to conduct its own studies on all four conditions before making a decision, and the results of those studies (due by the end of 2020, then delayed by the coronavirus pandemic to mid-2021) have not yet been publicly released.

In March 2019, Veterans Health Administration acting head Dr. Richard Stone told Congress VA "hoped" to make a decision on those illnesses "within 90 days," but that time came and passed and no decision was made.

Now that Congress has moved to force VA's hand on three of the four diseases, officials said the regulatory process to officially begin expanding benefits for veterans with bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson's-like symptoms could take up to two years, though newly installed VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters last week he hopes for a speedier resolution. So far, the exact timing for those changes to go into effect remains unclear.

McDonough also said he planned to consider high blood pressure as another covered condition, which could affect as many as 160,000 veterans, and he said cost would not be the primary consideration for him.

"Inevitably, people ... focus first on the cost," McDonough said in his first press briefing as secretary. "I want to focus first on the facts and on the data and what we know."

Capitol Hill lawmakers aren't willing to wait for McDonough to take his time, however, and are urging him to act now to expedite the process. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Montana, and ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, wrote in a letter to McDonough last week that the VA secretary has the authority to add diseases to the list of presumptive conditions

“More than fifty years have passed since Vietnam veterans served and sacrificed for this nation, many of whom continue to suffer the damaging effects of their exposure to Agent Orange … there is no time for further delay, our veterans deserve transparent communication and decisive action," the senators wrote to McDonough.

And although the senators said they were asking McDonough to use his authority as secretary to speed the process this time, they said it's not a sustainable way to move forward with future presumptive conditions.

"Veterans deserve an enduring framework, supported by science, that utilizes a fair and transparent process set up to serve them for generations to come," the senators said.

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

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: National Archives/Department of Veterans Affairs