Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee have written the Office of Management and Budget urging the department to stop obstructing a Department of Veterans Affairs’ decision to include new diseases on a list of conditions presumed linked to Agent Orange.
The move follows a Military Times report in October that OMB and its director, Mick Mulvaney, are responsible for delaying a decision to designate bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like symptoms as presumptive conditions by challenging scientific evidence and recommendations by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
According to documents obtained by a veteran through the Freedom of Information Act, former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin had decided in 2017 to add the conditions to those presumed related to Agent Orange exposure. But OMB and White House advisers challenged his decision.
Five senators, led by Montana Democrat Jon Tester, the committee’s ranking member, wrote Mulvaney on Oct. 31 asking OMB to “stop blocking” the decision on the three conditions. They also included hypertension, which was found in a 2018 National Academies report to also have “sufficient evidence of association” to defoliants used during the Vietnam War.
“We are frustrated that previous letters addressed directly to you have gone unanswered,” wrote Tester, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is an Independent but votes with the Democratic bloc.
“Frankly, you need to do your job,” they wrote.
More than 83,000 Vietnam veterans with bladder cancer, hypothyroidism or Parkinson’s symptoms would be eligible for disability compensation and health care if their conditions are included on the list of presumptive conditions.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans also suffer from hypertension, or high blood pressure. If it is added to the list of 14 conditions, it has the potential to cost VA billions in care.
The senators told Mulvaney to “stop denying the overwhelming scientific evidence provided to you by countless veterans and medical experts.”
“No more excuses. Stop turning your backs on the thousands of Vietnam-era veterans across the country who are suffering – and dying – from significant health conditions directly associated with their service to our nation and their exposure to toxic herbicides.”
The letter follows statements last month by other senators, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and veterans service organizations condemning the delay.
Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander William Schmitz said Oct. 23 the organization was upset by “the backdoor political games … being played in D.C. as the lives of our veterans are at stake.”
“The health and welfare of our nation’s veterans should, and must, be our number one priority,” Schmitz said in a release.
Vietnam Veterans of American National President John Rowan was even more blunt: “We hold the [OMB] and its director culpable in the deaths of those Vietnam veterans who went to their graves waiting for their government to do the right thing and grant service-connection for exposure to Agent Orange and other rainbow agents, as recommended by the VA Secretary based on findings of the Institute of Medicine (the former name of the National Academies of Medicine).”
VA officials have repeatedly told Congress and the media that an announcement on the decision is forthcoming.
On Sept. 25, Dr. Patricia Hastings, VA’s chief consultant for post-deployment health told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that “those [presumptives] are still with leadership in coordination for the decisions to be made.”
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said Sept. 17 that the details were being considered and a decision would be made but he declined to say what the final ruling is or when it will be released.
Congress can legislate additions to the Agent Orange presumptive list. Earlier this year, it passed a law ruling that the VA extend benefits to ill personnel who served on Navy ships off the coast of Vietnam, known as Blue Water Navy veterans.
But the bill passed after a court had ruled VA must pay disability benefits to the estimated 90,000 affected veterans and VA had already dropped its objections to the ruling.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.