Agent Orange Scapegoating

October 16, 2015

At a recent hearing on the future of the VA health care system, Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), complained that his MOAA-supported bill – H.R. 3423, an extension of the Agent Orange Act (AOA) – was allowed to expire in September. Walz, an Operation Enduring Freedom veteran and retired Army National Guard sergeant major, hoped the bill would be bundled with other expiring measures in a VA “extenders package.”

Under the extension, the VA would renew an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to evaluate the scientific evidence regarding links between certain diseases and exposure to dioxin and other chemical compounds in herbicides. This includes any association between exposure to herbicides in Vietnam and diseases suspected to be associated with such exposure.

The evidence produced would form the basis of any recommendation from the NAS’ independent Institute of Medicine (IOM) to add medical conditions to the list of diseases presumed caused by exposure to the herbicides. The AOA gave the Secretary of Veterans Affairs express authority to decide whether to authorize veterans’ disability benefits for the diseases (and effectively required him to do so if the evidence indicated the link).

The IOM expects to finish its final report on Agent Orange exposure in March 2016. With the expiration of the AOA on Sept. 30, some believe an extension is essential to assure the report is implemented by the VA.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee thinks an extension is unnecessary because the Secretary already has general rulemaking authority to add more diseases to the presumptions list.

Walz’ office staff said they were told through informal discussions that the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of H.R. 3423 in the billions.

Congress’ hand-washing failure to extend the virtual mandate leaves Secretary Bob McDonald in a difficult position.

If he decides to add to the list of presumptive diseases, politicians and deficit hawks likely will blame him for incurring huge new government costs. (When former Secretary Eric Shinseki added three diseases to the Agent Orange presumptive list in 2010, hundreds of thousands of new claims flooded the VA system, helping to create the mountain of backlogged claims only recently brought under control.)

On the other hand, if McDonald doesn’t act promptly to add diseases based on reasonable evidence from the IOM, he’ll be accused of not taking proper care of Vietnam veterans.

MOAA thinks the VA Secretary deserves more congressional support in his exercise of this national responsibility.

Join Today CTA