Veteran groups to Trump: Make VA 'immediately' provide benefits for additional Agent Orange-linked diseases

Abbie Bennett
February 10, 2020 - 12:00 pm

Photo Courtesy of USAF

This story originally published at noon on Feb. 10, 2020. It was updated at 3:35 p.m. Feb. 10. 

Thousands of veterans have died or suffered from illnesses likely caused or worsened by Agent Orange exposure.

Now, after multiple delays from the Department of Veterans Affairs, veteran service organizations (VSOs) are calling on President Donald Trump to put an end to the wait. 

"The continued delayed action by VA is causing additional suffering for Vietnam veterans and their families. We urge you to take action and to end the wait, needless suffering and disappointment for an entire generation of veterans," VSOs, including Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, Fleet reserve Association, Paralyzed Veterans of America and AMVETS, wrote in a letter to the president Monday. 

Last year and again just last month, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he planned to delay his decision on adding four illnesses to the list of diseases VA covers related to exposure to the toxic herbicide.  The U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons of multiple herbicides over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, including Agent Orange.

Wilkie said he and other VA leaders disagreed with scientists' findings that link Agent Orange exposure to bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, hypertension and Parkinson’s-like symptoms. He plans to wait for two more VA studies to conclude and publish before making a decision, pushing things until late 2020, at the earliest.

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, to the tune of  $15.2 billion, according to VA. 

"On behalf of the millions of veterans, service members, their families and survivors that our organizations represent, we call on you to instruct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to immediately add the four diseases the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (National Academies) have associated with exposure to Agent Orange to the presumptive disease list," the veteran organizations wrote. 

"Based on the epidemiologic studies analyzed by the National Academies, their independent Agent Orange reports, and VA studies showing these same associations, it is apparent these two studies will not change the previous scientific evidence," the letter reads.

VSOs also accused VA of providing "misleading" information in its report to Congress last month, "apparently intended to undercut" the scientific evidence supporting a link between the diseases and Agent Orange exposure, according to the letter. 

Two years ago, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin decided to add more diseases to the VA's list of health concerns that qualify a veteran for Agent Orange disability benefits. According to documents obtained by a veteran through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to Connecting Vets, White House officials stood in Shulkin's way expressing concern about the cost of covering additional diseases and requesting more research. Military Times first reported on the documents.  

"Even more alarming is the possibility that the administration is outweighing the cost of adding these diseases over those veterans in need of VA benefits and health care," the VSO letter reads. "When taking all of this into consideration, it appears VA is not waiting on additional science, but continuing to stonewall and delay adding these four diseases based in part on monetary concerns. This is troubling."

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

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

"Many of these veterans and their families have been waiting for over three years to receive a positive decision, one that could finally get them the justice and benefits they deserve," the VSO letter to the president reads. "We call on you to intervene and end their wait."

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.

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