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Local

White House delays expansion of Agent Orange benefits, leaving 80K veterans to wait

 

The Trump administration should stop blocking Vietnam veterans with bladder cancer and three other diseases the government does not recognize as tied to Agent Orange from getting the benefits they deserve, two California congressmen said in a letter to the White House on Monday.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Riverside, and Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, sent a letter to White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney saying his decision to block bladder cancer, Parkinson’s-like symptoms, hypothyroidsism and hypertension from being added to a list of conditions that are tied to Agent Orange was “despicable.”

“My grandfather served in Vietnam, was exposed to Agent Orange, and died from cancer as a result of his service – but his story is not uncommon. I refuse to stand by and let other veterans die because they didn’t get the health care they need,” Harder said. “Some bureaucrat shouldn’t be able to block health care for all these folks just to save a buck. It’s rotten, and it’s not who we are.”

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If the diseases were added, it would make it easier for veterans to get Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and covered health care.

Former VA secretary David Shulkin tried to get at least three of those diseases — possibly excluding hypertension — added in 2017 but the White House opposed the recommendation, saying more research was necessary.

Shulkin, contacted Tuesday by McClatchy, said that the administration’s rationale — that additional research was needed, on top of what had been done by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and other organizations — did not serve veterans who have waited for decades for the VA’s help.

“There’s not always perfect scientific evidence when you are looking at issues from 50 years ago,” Shulkin said. Shulkin was removed as VA secretary in March 2018 and replaced with current secretary Robert Wilkie.

An estimated 83,000 veterans have one of the three conditions that would be added to the list of “presumptive conditions,” ailments that are presumed to be connected to Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide the military used during the Vietnam War.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the record. The OMB did not respond to a request for comment.

VA spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci said officials are still awaiting the results of two studies, the Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study and the Vietnam Era Mortality Study, before they make further decisions on this issue.

“VA is committed to regular review of all emerging evidence of adverse impacts to Veterans from Agent Orange, but the department will not be announcing any new presumptive conditions until there is sufficient evidence to support an informed decision,” Mandreucci said.

Vietnam Veterans of America executive director for policy and government affairs Rick Weidman said the two ongoing studies will be “of limited use.”

“You’ve got the science, it’s already done,” said Weidman, who served as an Army medical corpsman in Vietnam. “Shulkin got it forward and OMB slapped it down.”

Shulkin said that when the OMB turned down the three additional conditions last year, it was not clear if the agency’s call for additional research meant that a decision was “just being kicked down the road, or if it was being definitely declared that the answer was ‘no,’” he said.

“If it was ‘no,’ then legislation is probably the best way to go,” he said.

This fall McClatchy in an exclusive investigation of all cancer billings at the VA from fiscal year 2000 to fiscal year 2018 found that the rate of urinary cancer treatments rose 61 percent in that timeframe.

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Harder also plans to introduce a resolution – a companion to a Senate resolution by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio – to encourage President Donald Trump to add Parkinson’s-like symptoms, bladder cancer, hypertension and hypothyroidism to this list of presumptive coverage for Vietnam veterans. A resolution would not mandate such coverage.

It’s the latest of multiple congressional efforts to push Mulvaney and OMB to expand benefits and care for veterans for a war they fought more than 50 years ago. On Jan 1, 2020, the VA will begin to process claims for Navy and Coast Guard veterans who were also exposed to Agent Orange, but were not included in the original covered care, which only covered land forces.

Harder cosponsored that legislation and has held workshops in his district to help area veterans apply for those newly available benefits.

Five Democratic senators wrote a letter similar to Harder and Takano’s in October, asking OMB to “stop blocking” presumptive coverage for the three conditions. The lawmakers also include hypertension in the list of conditions they say VA must cover, as did Harder and Takano.

“We are frustrated that previous letters addressed directly to you have gone unanswered,” wrote the five senators, led by the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Jon Tester, D-Montana. They called current scientific evidence “overwhelming.”

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