Senators press VA on Agent Orange benefits

Senators press VA on Agent Orange benefits
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Senators pressed the Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday to expand benefits for Vietnam veterans and conduct more research on the effects of Agent Orange.

“This nation needs to understand with passion and urgency the importance of this issue,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “It affects veterans of every era.

"There may be new toxic substances and chemicals on the battlefield, but the principal is the same that anybody in the vicinity of combat and many who may only be near it can be exposed to this type of insidious and pernicious chemical harm,” he added.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing Tuesday on veterans exposed to toxic chemicals and the VA’s response.

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At issue are so-called "blue water" Vietnam veterans, who served on Navy ships during the conflict. Because they were offshore, many of those veterans are not eligible for some benefits, despite claims that they were exposed to toxins like Agent Orange, which are linked to a number of illnesses, including cancer. The U.S. used Agent Orange, a herbicide, during the war.

Senators want benefits extended to blue-water veterans. But VA officials pushed back, saying that allowing them to receive benefits for illnesses presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure would increase the backlog already plaguing the VA.

Currently, only veterans who served on the ground in Vietnam or about 12 miles offshore are eligible for benefits for illnesses tied to Agent Orange. A bill sitting in the Senate would extend benefits to blue water Navy veterans.

In the twenty years of the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Veterans and Agent Orange, only one epidemiological study has been done that specifically reported on blue water veterans, said Kenneth Ramos, chair of the institute’s committee. The study found a higher instance of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in blue water veterans, but doesn’t address whether that’s a result of exposure.

Because environmental testing wasn’t done at the time of the Vietnam War, Ramos said he doesn’t anticipate any new research finding definitive links to Agent Orange and diseases found in blue water veterans.

“Whether or not the claims of blue water Navy veterans are to be processed like those of other Vietnam veterans is ultimately a policy decision and not one that can be answered on the basis of science,” Ramos said.

The VA estimates about 80,000 blue water veterans are still alive, said David McLenachen, acting deputy under secretary for disability assistance at the VA. Of that, about 40,000 have been found eligible for benefits, while about 20,000 have been denied benefits.

The VA’s current backlog was partly caused by adding three illnesses presumed to be caused by Agent Orange, McLenachen said. Changing the policy to include blue water veterans would increase the VA’s workload, and the department would need more resources, McLenachen said.

“It generally increases the workload significantly,” he said.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said he’d support adding more people to the VA to get the work done.

“If we have to serve more veterans, we have to serve more veterans,” he said. “If you start putting processes in place where we’re serving more veterans it requires more people, I’ll be one of the first ones to do whatever I have to do to provide you with the resources to do it.”

Senators also asked the VA to conduct more research and supported their colleague Blumenthal’s bill that would mandate the VA to look into Agent Orange’s effect on the offspring of veterans.

VA officials said they aren’t equipped to do the multigenerational research called for in Blumenthal’s bill and asked for another agency to be responsible for the work.

Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranGoogle says it continues to allow apps to access Gmail user data McConnell: Sessions should stay as attorney general Tougher Russia sanctions face skepticism from Senate Republicans MORE (R-Kan.) said the VA should want to do the research, but senators should find an agency eager to conduct the study.

“The VA believes, as I understand, there’s insufficient evidence to tie the conditions that we find in children or grandchildren of veterans to the exposure of their mothers, fathers, grandmothers or grandfathers,” Moran said. “And so, if that’s a true statement and the VA can’t find the evidence, the scientific connection, then it seems to me that the VA ought to be terribly interested in making that determination.”