Thousands more veterans ill from Agent Orange exposure could qualify for Department of Veterans Affairs care and benefits if a major defense bill passes.
Late Wednesday, Capitol Hill lawmakers released the final version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a massive must-pass annual defense bill which outlines defense policy and spending authorizations and typically includes measures such as troop pay raises, equipment and more. The bill is all but guaranteed to pass in recent years and has been prime real estate for major military and veterans legislation, including on toxic exposures.
The newest version released Wednesday includes a measure to add bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson's-like symptoms to the list of those covered by VA because they are linked to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. VA leaders including Secretary Robert Wilkie have repeatedly delayed decisions to expand care to those veterans, or arguing against the expansion, disagreeing with scientific studies linking the herbicide to those diseases.
But Congress may be poised to force VA's hand regardless. A bipartisan conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers agreed to include the measure in the more than $740 billion authorization bill. Left out, however, was a fourth illness -- hypertension -- the more controversial of the four. Including hypertension could add as many as 200,000 more eligible veterans, and cost was a concern in prior negotiations, sources with knowledge of those talks said.
Adding bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson's symptoms could help make more than 34,000 veterans eligible for VA care and benefits. Lawmakers said the expansion is expected to cost about $8 billion over the next decade.
One remaining hurdle may be President Donald Trump. The president has repeatedly threatened to veto the NDAA over a seperate measure calling for military bases honoring Confederate troops to be renamed.
More than 150 members of Congress pushed the conference committee to include the measure in the NDAA, and veterans, families and advocates have pushed for years to get the diseases added to VA's presumptives list -- those illnesses VA recognizes as service-connected diseases related to the toxic herbicide and therefore qualified for care and benefits.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Rep. Josh Harder, D-California, led the push among their colleagues to get the measure into the NDAA.
By Thursday morning, the lawmakers were celebrating the major step forward.
"This is a monumental win for more than 34,000 Vietnam veterans who have been subjected to countless delays while living with debilitating illnesses," Tester said. "Inclusion of my amendment in the annual defense package sends a clear message to Vietnam veterans that their service is not forgotten."
Tester said he hoped the House and Senate would move quickly to pass the massive bill, sending it to the president's desk for final approval.
"These Vietnam veterans have already waited long enough," he said.
Harder said Congress has spent years "paying lip-service" to veterans, but this move could help change that.
"This is an incredible day for veterans who have waited decades to get the care they deserve," he said. "We're putting our money where our mouth is."
Vietnam Veterans of America National President John Rowan said Thursday that the measure's inclusion in the NDAA represents a "long battle."
"This legislation will correct a long-lingering injustice, allowing our afflicted Vietnam veterans to receive the care and benefits they have earned by their service in our long ago, unpopular war," he said.
Rowan called on veterans to write or call the president to ask him to support the bill.
"Let him know how important this legislation is to our Vietnam veterans," he said. "With President Trump's signature on this bill, he will have done the right thing for our veterans and his legacy will prevail."
The United States sprayed more than 20 million gallons of multiple herbicides over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, including Agent Orange, and veterans have waited since then for the federal government to admit to and provide care for all of the many conditions caused by their exposure.
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 hypertension (high blood pressure), bladder cancer, hypothyrodism and Parkinson's symptoms, a decision VA says could cost from $11.2 billion to $15.2 billion.
Veterans, families, lawmakers and advocates have called on Wilkie and the White House for years to approve the care expansion, which is within both Wilkie and the president's authority. But Wilkie maintained he planned to wait for the results of internal VA studies and the White House has been silent, lawmakers, Congressional staff and veteran service organizations told Connecting Vets.
Now, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said those studies, which Wilkie said would be completed in late 2020, won't be finished until mid-2021 at the earliest, further delaying a decision from the department. But if Congress move ahead with the NDAA, it won't matter.
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 Agent Orange presumptives. 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. Patricia Kime first reported on the documents for Military Times.
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.
A list of the diseases currently linked to Agent Orange and eligible for benefits can be found here.