Sen. Jon Tester, the new chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, talks about one his lead priorities for legislation in the coming session.

Senate lawmakers will make a push this year to add officially high blood pressure to the list of illnesses presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War, a move that could open disability payments to more than 160,000 veterans.

In an interview with Military Times this week, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the issue will be a major early focus for his committee, and he has already begun work on legislative fixes for the issue.

“Look, we’re trying to outlive the Vietnam veterans now,” he said. “The science is there, making sure they get the benefits they deserve is really important to me.

“I think it’s nearly criminal that they don’t already have those benefits.”

On Friday, Tester and committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough asking him to exercise his own authority and fast-track the issue. “For too long government responses to certain cohorts of veterans have proved that the system to care for those affected by toxic exposures needs reform,” the pair wrote.

The moves come just days after McDonough in a press conference pledged to re-examine the connection between chemical defoliant exposure and hypertension.

Officials from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have indicated there is a likely connection between the two, but past VA leaders have said the evidence isn’t strong enough to warrant presumptive disability benefits status for all Vietnam veterans.

“People often are inclined to focus first on the cost,” McDonough told reporters about his pending review of the issue. “I want to focus first on the facts and on the data.”

At stake is as much as $15 billion in new disability payouts to veterans over the next decade.

Typically, for veterans to receive disability benefits, they must prove that their ailments are directly connected to injuries or illnesses which happened as a direct result of their military service. In toxic exposure cases, that usually means combing through military medical and duty records, some of which have deteriorated or disappeared over the decades.

However, because of the widespread use of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, VA and Congress over the years have given presumptive status to a long list of illnesses connected to that exposure.

The distinction means that veterans only need to show that they contracted one of the illnesses and served somewhere in country during the fighting, without specific proof of contact with the chemicals.

Last year, Congress added three new illnesses to that presumptive list: bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like symptoms. VA officials are still working through the details of how that change will be implemented and when affected veterans will start to see payouts.

The move is expected to affect about 34,000 veterans. Nearly five times as many individuals could be affected if high blood pressure is added to the list.

Tester said he is confident lawmakers can work with McDonough on a fix.

“The toxic exposure issue in general is going to be a high priority issue in the Senate,” he added. “And I think that burn pits, those kinds of things are also going to be pretty high on the list.”

Democrats control the House, Senate and White House for the first time in 10 years. Tester said he doesn’t see any of the veterans issues as partisan ones, but he is hopeful that his party’s control of both Congress and the presidency will lead to quicker action on the issues this session.

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.

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