(Updated Dec. 4.)
Tens of thousands of veterans would receive care and benefits thanks to language included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would add bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism to the list of conditions presumed connected to Agent Orange exposure.
The NDAA conference committee released the final version for consideration by the House on Dec. 1. The inclusion of the Agent Orange provision was announced Dec. 3 by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who sponsored an amendment adding the language to the Senate’s version of the NDAA.
The provision has strong support among veterans organizations and in the Senate and House, but faced an uncertain future thanks to a projected $8 billion price tag. This objection was overcome in negotiations given the strong outcry from veterans, to include the thousands of MOAA members who wrote and called their lawmakers and Congressional leadership.
Reps. Josh Harder (D-Calif.) and Pete Stauber (R-Minn.) led the push in the House, and hundreds of lawmakers signed onto letters of support that helped achieve inclusion in the final version. About 34,000 Vietnam veterans would be eligible for earned benefits under the change.
This effort has been years in the making. The expiration of the Agent Orange Act in 2015 eliminated the requirement for the VA secretary to respond to the biennial updates of the Veterans and Agent Orange report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. When subsequent reports in 2016 to 2018 found a sufficient level of association for multiple illnesses, action was not taken to add the illnesses to the list of Agent Orange presumptives.
While the major hurdle of including the provisions in the final version of the NDAA is overcome, the fate of the bill is still uncertain. The bill must pass both chambers and be signed by the president. While the NDAA has passed for 59 years in a row, President Donald Trump is saying he will veto the measure if the legislation does not include changes to legal protections offered to social media platforms.
It’s unclear how Congress will respond, and whether the president will carry through with the veto threat.