Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Senate Democrats are pressing the Trump administration to announce its decision on whether to add several diseases to the list of conditions that automatically qualify for veterans benefits because they are linked to Agent Orange.
Schumer took to Twitter Wednesday urging the White House to act, following a failed attempt earlier in the day by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to introduce a resolution encouraging President Donald Trump to expand the list of health conditions related to Agent Orange to include bladder cancer, Parkinson’s like symptoms, hypothyroidism and hypertension.
The resolution was blocked by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who said the decision must not be made until the science can justify spending taxpayer dollars.
“It’s time to make sure every that every benefit we promise the veteran we have the money to do it.” Isakson said.
Last month, internal documents obtained by Military Times from a veteran showed that two years ago, VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin agreed to add three of the health conditions — bladder cancer, Parkinson’s like symptoms, hypothyroidism — to the list but White House officials, including Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, challenged his authority and blocked the announcement.
The report of the interference riled lawmakers who have worked for years to help affected constituents.
In introducing his resolution, Brown said “time is running out” for 83,000 veterans who are sick and waiting for an announcement of the decision, which was promised by VA officials earlier this year.
"Some might accuse this body that we are waiting for them to die, as hard as it is to say that,” Brown said on the Senate floor. "Veterans shouldn’t have to fight this one at a time … we did this to them. The American government decided to spray Agent Orange. We knew it was harmful.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., on Wednesday urged Wilkie and Trump to “do the right thing if you claim to be an advocate for veterans.”
“No more excuses. End the wait for these veterans and their families,” Tester said.
Department of Veterans Affairs officials told Congress in March they would announce the decision “within 90 days,” but in never happened.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said last week that no changes would be made until next year.
“I’m committed, particularly on herbicides, on the Agent Orange issue, to present (changes) to the Congress next year. The decisions will be based on the science coming out of that institution, so that we get it right,” Wilkie said.
While the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has found there is limited or suggestive evidence linking bladder cancer and hypothyroidism to Agent Orange exposure and suggestive evidence linking hypertension, or high blood pressure, to the group of herbicides used as defoliants during the Vietnam War, VA is waiting for the results of two studies — the results of which were expected this year — before making any announcement, VA officials have said.
In the documents obtained by Army veteran Jeff O’Malley, OMB officials insisted that VA provide more “compelling evidence” to prove the link between the proposed diseases and exposure.
Schumer, D-N.Y., said the failure to pass a resolution and Mulvaney’s objections were “incomprehensibly cruel” and “obviously hypocritical.”
“President Trump goes around and talks about how he loves our veterans and then he doesn’t allow those who suffer some of the most to get the help they need,” Schumer said.
The debate over the proposed presumptive conditions coincided with efforts to extend Agent Orange benefits to sailors and Marines who served on Navy ships off the coast of Vietnam — the “blue water” veterans.
Trump signed legislation in June extending benefits to those veterans who are sick with one of the 14 conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure. VA announced it would begin processing these veterans’ claims beginning Jan. 1.
But Brown said Wednesday that already, 12 “blue water” veterans have died and the VA should act to help those affected with the proposed presumptive conditions as well.
“I understand as well as anybody how important it is to protect taxpayers … we can’t come up with a few billion dollars to help veterans who are dying from these four illnesses?” Brown said.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.