Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough on Tuesday promised an “urgent” review of new rules regarding presumptive benefits status for Vietnam veterans suffering from serious illnesses related to toxic chemical defoliant exposure, but offered no specific timeline for when veterans may see those changes put in place.
“We’re under the gun on this, and I think that’s a good thing,” McDonough told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday. “I feel some urgency on this … and we are trying to get spun up on it.”
In January, officials from President Donald Trump’s VA leadership team said it could be months or years before veterans suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like symptoms — three new conditions added presumptive benefits list by Congress last year — would see any benefits from the change in law.
Veterans advocates for years have fought for years to force the change, which would give about 34,000 Vietnam veterans a faster path to receiving disability benefits.
Past VA officials have argued against the move in part because of lingering questions about connections between the illnesses and chemical defoliant exposure (although National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine officials have said the science linking the two is conclusive) and in part because of the potential cost of the move, estimated at about $8 billion over the next 10 years
But Congress sided with the veterans advocates, putting language in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act forcing the change.
Following the bill’s passage, VA officials said the regulatory process to implement the new rules can take up to 24 months. McDonough indicated he hopes to move much quicker.
“So many of the vets have been waiting while on this,” he said.
McDonough also promised to re-examine a related issue: the connection between hypertension and Agent Orange exposure, one that medical experts have said is strong but not as conclusive as the other approved illnesses.
Adding high-blood pressure to the presumptive list could potentially more than double the cost to VA, and benefit as many as 160,000 veterans.
“People often are inclined to focus first on the cost,” McDonough said. “I want to focus first on the facts and on the data.”
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.