UPDATE: Due to incorrect information provided by House Armed Services Committee staff, this report originally included hypertension among the conditions covered in the defense authorization act. It is not.
After years of fighting with federal officials, Vietnam veterans suffering from bladder cancer, Parkinsonism or hypothyroidism would be granted presumptive benefits status under language included in the final version of the annual defense authorization bill unveiled Wednesday.
If passed into law, the mandate would require Veterans Affairs officials to begin granting fast-track disability status for about 34,000 veterans suffering from the three conditions. It would also represent a major victory for veterans advocates who have pushed for the change for years.
But the policy bill still faces a veto threat from President Donald Trump on other, unrelated issues.
Department officials have blocked the move to grant presumptive benefits status in recent years while they conduct additional scientific research into the connection between the illnesses and exposure to chemical defoliants during the Vietnam War.
Their research comes despite past findings from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine linking the medical problems to Agent Orange exposure. In internal White House documents, Office of Management and Budget officials have questioned the validity of those past findings while lamenting the potential costs of new disability payouts.
The administration’s resistance expanding the presumptive benefits status has drawn condemnation from veterans advocates and lawmakers for months, with both arguing that the aging Vietnam Veterans deserved better treatment for their health sacrifices on behalf of the country.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said the new veterans benefit was a win on “an extremely important issue.”
“The VA, I think, has been unfairly treating this issue for years and denying people coverage that they ought to have, saying things that can clearly be linked to Agent Orange exposure were not,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
“This will give people the coverage that they deserve, for what happened with Agent Orange exposure, and I think that’s huge.”
The issue of presumptive benefits status has been controversial in the veterans community for years.
In most cases, veterans must prove (typically through medical exams and service records) that their injuries and illnesses are connected to their time in the military in order to receive disability benefits.
However, in conflicts like Vietnam, where the chemical defoliant Agent Orange was used across the country with little clear documentation of when U.S. troops were exposed, federal officials have made exceptions to those standards of proof.
Currently, veterans who served in the country and later suffered a series of 14 illnesses known to be connected to the chemical exposure receive presumptive exposure status, and do not need additional documentation to apply for benefits.
As many as 83,000 Vietnam veterans are believed to be suffering from bladder cancer, Parkinsonism or hypothyroidism related to Agent Orange exposure, but the majority of them already qualify for other VA benefits. The new legislation is expected to help about 34,000 not currently receiving full disability payouts, and cost about $8 billion over the next 10 years.
Advocates have also pushed for the inclusion of high blood pressure on the presumptive list, a move that would potentially benefit more than 160,000 veterans. VA officials have estimated it could cost as much as $15 billion over the next decade.
But hypertension was not included in the final authorization bill draft.
Earlier this summer, a coalition of 33 veterans groups including Vietnam Veterans of America, AMVETS, The American Legion and Wounded Warrior Project urged lawmakers to include the issue in the annual defense authorization bill — a massive budget policy measure which also includes military pay authorizations and equipment priorities — calling it a matter of fairness and justice.
“Tens of thousands of veterans are still suffering from the consequences of Agent Orange use in Vietnam,” the group wrote. “By including (this issue) in the NDAA, Congress will care and provide benefits for those with serious illnesses.”
Despite bipartisan support in Congress for the presumptive benefits issue (and most of the rest of the defense bill), whether it will become law is still in doubt.
President Donald Trump for months has threatened to veto the authorization bill over language regarding the renaming of bases honoring leaders of the Confederacy, calling it an attack on U.S. military history. Lawmakers included the provision in their final draft anyway.
In recent days, Trump has also insisted that lawmakers include language in the authorization bill repealing legal protections for social media companies, arguing their conduct has become a national security issue.
Lawmakers working on the compromise authorization bill rejected that idea, saying the topic was not relevant to the military budget measure and noting it was not included in the separate drafts adopted in the House and Senate earlier this year.
The defense authorization bill has been passed by Congress for 59 consecutive years, a streak lawmakers hope to extend later this month.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.