In March, Veterans Affairs officials said they may have a decision on adding four new diseases to the list of Agent Orange presumptive benefits eligibility by the start of the summer. Five months later, they still haven’t moved ahead.
“They told us they were ready to go, and we haven’t gone anywhere,” said Rick Weidman, executive director for policy at Vietnam Veterans of America. “It feels like they just don’t want to spend any money on this.”
Vietnam veteran advocates feel a sense of urgency because the the youngest who served there are in their early 60s.
Last November, researchers from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine announced they had compiled “sufficient evidence” linking hypertension, bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinson’s-like symptoms with exposure to Agent Orange and other defoliants used in Vietnam and surrounding countries in the 1960s and 1970s.
They recommended adding the conditions to VA’s existing list of 14 presumptive diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, a designation which allows veterans to more quickly and easily qualify for disability benefits.
Last March, VA’s top acting health official — Dr. Richard Stone — told members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that he expected final action on the issue within 90 days.
But this week, a department officials said that they have “no announcements on Agent Orange presumptive conditions at this time,” providing no further details on delays in the process. Another senior administration official said VA is continuing to review the data and has not yet made any recommendations.
Almost two years ago, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin likewise suggested he was moving towards adding more illnesses to VA’s presumptive conditions list for Agent Orange, but those changes also never materialized.
The delay is the latest frustration for Vietnam veteran advocates already unsettled by the department’s decision earlier this summer to postpone payments related to “blue water” Navy veterans’s cases until early 2020.
Congress and the courts have mandated that sailors who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during the war receive the same presumptive illness status as their fellow troops who served on the ground. But lawmakers also gave VA an option to delay processing those claims for six months, to ensure the rush of new cases doesn’t overwhelm the existing benefits system.
VA leaders said using that extra time is responsible planning. Some advocates and lawmakers said they think the department could start processing some claims sooner, and have urged them to move up the timeline.
Weidman said he isn’t optimistic that the additional presumptive illnesses will be authorized before early next year.
“Our best hope now is to get a bill introduced to push this forward,” he said.
The addition of bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinson's-like symptoms to the list would potentially benefit thousands of aging veterans, adding a significant but not enormous amount to VA’s benefits expenses.
But adding hypertension — high blood pressure — as a presumed service-connected illness could affect tens of thousands of individuals, potentially creating billions in costs in coming years. The condition is also common in many older Americans, further complicating whether it should be labeled a conclusive result of military service.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.