VA again delays Agent Orange care expansion, blames pandemic for stalled studies

A helicopter sprays herbicide over Vietnam.
Photo credit Department of Veterans Affairs
By Connecting Vets

In March 2019, Department of Veterans Affairs leaders said they hoped to make a decision on whether to expand care and benefits to thousands more veterans sickened by Agent Orange. Now, 21 months later, VA says that decision won't come for at least another six months.

While veterans, families, survivors, advocates and more than 100 members of Congress have pushed VA to expand care by adding more diseases to the list of those covered because of a link to the toxic herbicide used during the Vietnam War, VA leaders have repeatedly delayed those decisions, or argued against the expansion for veterans with bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, Parkinson's and hypertension.

On Nov. 17, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said in a statement that the department had no announcements on changes to the list of presumptive Agent Orange conditions or updates on the two internal studies which Secretary Robert Wilkie said previously would be key in his decision.

That list of "presumptive" conditions includes all of the illnesses VA recognizes as service-connected diseases related to the toxic herbicide and therefore provides coverage and benefits for.

Days later, however, Noel told Connecting Vets that a decision is unlikely before mid-2021, when the results of the studies are now expected. Military.com first reported on the delays.

"Due to the pandemic, there has been a shift in schedule for the Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study (VE-HEROeS)," Noel said in an email. "That’s because the team members responsible for handling these duties are supporting VA’s response to the COVID-19 national emergency. The study is ongoing and articles are in the process of submission for peer review and publication. VA is in the process of compiling data from multiple sources and building the analytical files for the Vietnam Mortality study, which is expected to be submitted for peer review and publication starting in mid-2021."

VA has played a major role in pandemic response in the United States, diverting its staff and resources to help state veterans homes and admitting non-veterans, fulfilling its Fourth Mission as America's backup healthcare system in times of crisis.

With or without VA leaders' agreement, some lawmakers are setting out to force the department to expand care.

Rep. Josh Harder, D-California, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, along with more than 150 fellow lawmakers have urged their colleagues negotiating the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to include a measure to would expand care for veterans with three of those four diseases. Hypertension was left out because it has been the most contentious of the four largely because of the cost associated with the roughly 200,000 veterans affected, sources close to the negotiations told Connecting Vets.

That massive must-pass annual defense bill, which includes policy and spending authorizations, is all but guaranteed to pass in recent years and is prime real estate for major military and veterans legislation, including on toxic exposures.

Adding bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism to the VA's presumptive list could qualify more than 34,000 veterans for care and benefits.

The measure to include the three diseases made it into the Senate version of the NDAA, but not the House. On Wednesday, Armed Services Committee lawmakers said they had reached an agreement on the NDAA, but had not yet released the final version.

The United States sprayed more than 20 million gallons of multiple herbicides over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, including Agent Orange.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has said repeatedly he disagreed with National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine scientists' findings in 2016 and 2018 that link Agent Orange exposure to hypertension (high blood pressure), bladder cancer, hypothyrodism and Parkinsonism, a decision VA says could cost from $11.2 billion to $15.2 billion.

Veterans, lawmakers and veterans' advocacy groups have for now for years repeatedly called on Wilkie and the White House to extend benefits and help an aging population of veterans and their families. So far, Wilkie maintained that he planned to wait for the results of VA's in-house studies. The White House has been silent, lawmakers, Congressional staff and VSOs told Connecting Vets.

Previous attempts have been made to expand Agent Orange benefits for these diseases.

In 2017, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin decided to add more diseases to the VA's list of Agent Orange presumptives. 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. Patricia Kime first reported on the documents for Military Times.

In March 2019, Veterans Health Administration acting head Dr. Richard Stone told Congress VA "hoped" to make a decision on those illnesses "within 90 days," but that time came and passed and no decision was made.

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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