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Daily News Blog

16
Dec

Defense Spending Bill Set to Expand Coverage for Veterans Harmed by Agent Orange

(Beyond Pesticides, December 16, 2020) Part of U.S. Senator Jon Tester’s (D-MT) Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act is set to be included in the federal defense spending bill, providing hope that service members continuing to suffer from diseases related to Agent Orange exposure will receive long needed health coverage. The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) received bipartisan support, and NDAA is expected to pass through both houses of Congress with a veto-proof majority. Nonetheless, President Trump has threatened a veto.

“…I fought tirelessly for years alongside our friends over at [Veterans of Foreign Wars] and other veteran service organizations,” Senator Tester said during a recent press conference, per the Missoula Current. “And I’m proud to have waged this fight. Now, Vietnam veterans suffering from diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange are on the cusp to receive critical care and benefits that they’ve earned.”

The issue at hand is whether four Agent Orange-related diseases – Parkinsonism, bladder cancer, hypertension, and hypothyroidism, should be considered eligible for benefits and disability compensation by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (the VA). According to the veteran advocacy group DAV, 83,000 former servicemembers suffer from these diseases. While the scientific literature linking Agent Orange to these health effects is sound, some veterans have nonetheless been waiting over a decade for the government to cover their medical bills, and thousands have died in the meantime.

A robust report published by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) in 2016 recommended expanding coverage to include the aforementioned diseases. Then-VA Secretary David Shulkin promised service members that a decision would be made by November 1, 2017. The day came and the VA decided to take no action. A brief statement from Secretary Shulkin indicated the only decision made was to “further explore new presumptive conditions for service connection that may ultimately qualify for disability compensation.”

Subsequent reporting and internal documents obtained by a veteran through a FOIA request revealed that Secretary Shulkin had indeed planned to list the diseases. However, the Trump Administration’s Office of Management and Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, intervened directly, pointing to the costs of expanding protections.

In early 2019, Richard Stone, MD, acting head of the Veterans Health Administration, told Senators he had “hoped” the VA would make a decision on coverage “within 90 days.” That time also came and went.

Later that year, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) tried to introduce a resolution requiring the VA to list the diseases as covered. However, that effort was shot down by then-Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who cited cost increases.

A provision included in the late 2019 omnibus federal spending bill required the VA to provide “a detailed explanation” for the multi-year delay in listing new covered diseases. A Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study (VE-HEROeS) was likewise set to be published by the VA this year as a means to justify covering the additional conditions. However, citing staffing issues resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, the VA has not completed these tasks.

While Senator Tester’s legislation will negate the need for the VA study, it still falls short for many veterans. Although it will require listing of Parkinsonism, bladder cancer, and hypothyroidism, it will not cover hypertension, an ailment NAM cited as having “sufficient evidence” linking it to Agent Orange exposure. Both Senator Tester and his state colleague, Senator Steve Daines (R-MT), indicated to Montana Public Radio that they’ll continue to fight to list hypertension.  

Beyond these immediate concerns is the expiration of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which required NAM to evaluate scientific evidence linking the herbicide to disease every other year. The report recommending listing of the current diseases in question was the last, as Congress declined to renew the law.

The need for Congress to act on this issue is emblematic of a catastrophic failure of leadership in the Trump Administration, Office of Management and Budget, and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (the VA), say health advocates.

As Rick Weidman, legislative director of Vietnam Veterans for America, told ProPublica after the initial 2017 delay: “If you can afford the goddamn war, you can afford to take care of the warriors.”

Agent Orange was one of the “rainbow herbicides” used in Vietnam, named so because of the orange striped drums in which the chemical was stored. The active ingredients were 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, but the formulation used in Vietnam was contaminated with the highly toxic 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), a likely progenitor of some of the most horrific effects of Agent Orange exposure. Vietnam is still dealing with the fallout from Agent Orange dioxin, and has sued Bayer’s Monsanto over its manufacture and supply of the pesticide to the U.S. during the war.

Although Agent Orange is now banned, 2,4-D remains one of the 30 most commonly used pesticides on lawns, school grounds, and parks today. It is considered a possible human carcinogen by the World Health Organization, and has been linked to liver damage and endocrine disruption in humans, in addition to being toxic to wildlife, pets and beneficial insects. Previous research from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detected dioxin contamination in a number of 2,4-D herbicide products produced for consumer sale.

Concerned residents can keep up the pressure on Congress by urging the inclusion of hypertension as covered disease in the final version of the NDAA amendment. “It is time for the Senate to vote on this legislation. And quite frankly, once that is done, then it is up to this administration and the next administration to make sure this bill is implemented, assuming that the Trump administration signs this bill, which I believe they will,” Senator Tester said at a press event.

For more information about the dangers Agent Orange continues to pose at home and abroad, see Beyond Pesticides’ Agent Orange archives.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Missoula Current, Montana Public Radio

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2 Responses to “Defense Spending Bill Set to Expand Coverage for Veterans Harmed by Agent Orange”

  1. 1
    Mack Payne Says:

    Great story about something that needs to be done. The government had enough money to go to war. It should have enough to take care of those who served in the war.

  2. 2
    Victoria Hernandez Says:

    I believe it is extremely important that measures be taken to compensate workers with disabilities due to accidents related to the work they performed.

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