Senate lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to add three serious illnesses — bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like symptoms — to the list of conditions presumed linked to chemical defoliant exposure in Vietnam.
The move has the potential to extend veterans disability benefits to tens of thousands of veterans, but still faces a long legislative road ahead. The proposal was added to the Senate’s draft of the annual defense authorization bill, which still must survive negotiations with the House in coming months.
But the 94-6 vote sent a strong message of support from lawmakers to administration officials, who have resisted the change in recent years because of the potential costs of the move.
“They don’t seem to think that exposure to these toxic chemicals in Vietnam is a cost of war,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. and ranking member on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Let me tell you, they are wrong, and it is. The fact is this administration wants to outlive the Vietnam veterans and they don’t want to pay for it.”
For the last four years — when the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine announced the three diseases could be credibly connected to Agent Orange exposure — veterans groups have pushed Veterans Affairs officials to include them on the list of presumptive conditions related to service in that war, allowing for fast-tracking of benefits claims.
VA officials had moved toward that step, but officials from the Office of Management and Budget objected before a final decision was made, citing cost concerns (the proposal could add several billion in new costs to the department in coming years) and what they called “limited scientific evidence.”
According to VA data, at least 83,000 Vietnam veterans have been diagnosed with bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like symptoms. Some of that group is already receiving veterans benefits for other war-related injuries.
Following Wednesday’s vote, veterans advocates praised the move as long overdue.
“I’ve lived with Agent Orange and my body for more than 50 years, and it’s affected every part of me,” said Vietnam veteran Bill Garberg, who suffers from Parkinson’s-related symptoms. “The men that have survived this long should get some help, help that they deserve for the service that they rendered.”
Shane Liermann, deputy national legislative director for benefits at Disabled American Veterans, said the illnesses serve as a reminder of the long costs of war.
“Agent Orange exposure has caused years of suffering for thousands of Vietnam veterans, taken many of their lives and negatively impacted their families and survivors,” he said. “Yet, VA has taken no action, almost four years on.”
A similar measure proposed in the House was not included in that chamber’s draft of the annual authorization bill finalized earlier this week. But Tester said he is optimistic that the issue can survive conference negotiations.
“If it doesn’t make it through conference, I’ll be surprised,” he said.
The measure does not include hypertension, which could have added up to 200,000 more veterans to the potential list of eligible veterans and billions in additional costs each year.
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.