Congressmen 'demand' White House stop blocking VA from helping Agent Orange-exposed vets

83,000 veterans still are waiting for VA to provide disability benefits for four Agent Orange-linked diseases.

Abbie Bennett
December 06, 2019 - 2:27 pm
AgentOrange

Tens of thousands of veterans sick from Agent Orange exposure still are waiting on the Department of Veterans Affairs to decide whether it will cover their illnesses. 

The veteran service organizations and members of Congress who represent them have had enough. 

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Rep. Josh Harder, another California Democrat, sent a letter to the White House recently demanding the administration step aside and allow VA to extend disability benefits for four Agent Orange-linked diseases. 

Democrats in the Senate and VSOs also previously blasted the White House, accusing the administration of "turning your backs on Vietnam vets who are suffering." 

An Institute of Medicine report in 2016 found evidence that bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease have likely links to the toxic herbicide. In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences found evidence linking hypertension, or high blood pressure, to the toxic herbicide as well.

Expanding the list of health conditions presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure could provide disability pay and health benefits to more than 83,000 veterans.

Two years ago, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin decided to add more diseases to VA's list of health concerns that qualify a veteran for Agent Orange disability benefits, but White House officials stood in Shulkin's way, according to documents obtained by a veteran through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to Connecting Vets. 

Takano's letter was addressed to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, one of the officials implicated in the documents as allegedly blocking VA's efforts to expand benefits. 

"We write today to demand that you stop your efforts to block the inclusion of four diseases in the (VA) presumptive list for Agent Orange exposure," the letter reads. "Media reports and official documents show that you personally intervened to stop tens of thousands of veterans affected by these diseases from getting the health care they deserve." 

The letter cites the National Academies' research as evidence sufficient to move forward, but questions Mulvaney's alleged efforts to stymie progress.

"It sounds like you disagree," the letter reads. "That's despicable. It is critical we fight for the health and welfare of our veterans as doggedly as they fought for our country ... You have a chance to help over 80,000 veterans who suffer daily ... Do not delay this decision any further." 

Waiting on more studies?

Following a Congressional hearing, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie was asked by reporters about the delay. 

"I'm working on it," Wilkie said. "I think you saw what I said about two studies that are coming out. You know me, I'm not the medical professional or the scientist. So that's vital -- that we have the National Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science weigh in ... Hopefully that's soon." 

Wilkie was referring to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which already have released the results of their research into the issue. When Connecting Vets sought clarification from VA on whether Wilkie misspoke, and what studies he referred to, VA pointed to two studies: 

  • The Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study
  • The Vietnam Era Mortality Study

VA Office of Media Relations Director Susan Carter said VA "currently awaits the results" of those studies and "that will guide decisions on this issue." 

When asked who is conducting those studies, Carter said: "VA is conducting both." 

Vietnam Veterans of America has written VA Secretary Robert Wilkie repeatedly asking for him to expand benefits for ill veterans with those four diseases, Rick Weidman, VVA executive director for policy and government affairs told Connecting Vets. But he hasn't responded. 

"We keep telling him, 'You need to move one these,'" Weidman said. "The science is there. There's no valid excuse morally or legally. That's what the law says -- if the scientific evidence is there, then you move forward."

But the cost of providing benefits for that many veterans is the holdup, Weidman said, accusing VA and other officials of "bureaucratic foot-dragging." 

"They don't want to spend the money," he said. "But if you don't want to spend the money, don't send our people to war. This was not something done to us by the enemy. It was something done to us by our own folks. This is simply recompense for where people have been significantly and mortally injured by service to country." 

'Within 90 days'

Earlier this year, Veterans Health Administration acting head Dr. Richard Stone told Congress VA "hoped" to make a decision on those illnesses "within 90 days," which was previously reported by Connecting Vets. 

That deadline has long passed. It's been seven months, and thousands of veterans are still waiting for VA to deliver on its promise. 

Repeated attempts by Connecting Vets to get an update from VA officials on whether the department had a forthcoming decision are consistently met with the same statement: "VA has no announcements on Agent Orange presumptive conditions at this time." 

A list of the diseases currently linked to Agent Orange and eligible for benefits can be found here

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

Want to get more connected to the stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.