Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) joined Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and 40 Democratic Senators in condemning the Trump Administration for stonewalling critical benefits to veterans suffering from health conditions associated with their exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. In their letter, the senators specifically called on the Administration to stop denying scientific evidence, and end the years-long delay of adding Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and Hypertension to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) list of service-connected presumptive conditions.
“Your Administration’s refusal to add these conditions to the presumptive list continues to deny more than 190,000 sick and aging veterans the health care and compensation they have earned and desperately need,” wrote the senators. “More than fifty years after their service and sacrifice, these veterans continue to suffer the detrimental effects of their exposure each day. These heroes deserve more than inaction and indecision from their own government— they deserve justice.”
Since the Agent Orange Act of 1991, VA has established a presumption of service-connection for 14 diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) reports. However, in a recent report required by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2020 Appropriations bill, VA called into question the scientific evidence put forth by the National Academies of Medicine (NAM), noting “significant concerns and limitations” in the findings of NASEM scientists. VA also cited additional requirements in the Department’s standards for presumptive conditions, delaying the consideration of care and compensation for thousands of suffering veterans.
The senators continued, “NAM’s reports have been the standard for scientific evidence of association for more than twenty years. But it is now clear that your Administration is intent on changing the rules at the eleventh hour and forcing veterans with Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and Hypertension to meet a different—perhaps unattainable— standard. That is unacceptable.”
Earlier this week, multiple Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) also weighed in on the issue, condemning the Administration for continuing unnecessary and pernicious delays in justice for Vietnam veterans suffering from service-connected illnesses.
“Mr. President, Vietnam veterans have long suffered from the ill health effects of Agent Orange exposure,” wrote the VSOs. “Thousands have died and many have been left to endure these negative health consequences from diseases that have been scientifically linked to Agent Orange. The continued delayed action by VA is causing additional suffering for Vietnam veterans and their families. We urge you to take action and to end the wait, needless suffering and disappointment for an entire generation of veterans.”
In addition to Senators Cortez Masto and Tester and Leader Schumer, the letter was signed by Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), and Jack Reed (D-R.I.).
Full text of the letter can be found HERE and below.
Dear President Trump,
For far too long, your Administration has stonewalled extending critical benefits to gravely ill veterans whose service in Vietnam exposed them to Agent Orange. As a result, these veterans suffer from Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and Hypertension – health conditions that each meet the historical standard for being added to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) presumptive list for service-connection as it relates to Agent Orange exposure. Your Administration’s refusal to add these conditions to the presumptive list continues to deny more than 190,000 sick and aging veterans the health care and compensation they have earned and desperately need. More than fifty years after their service and sacrifice, these veterans continue to suffer the detrimental effects of their exposure each day. These heroes deserve more than inaction and indecision from their own government – they deserve justice.
Previous letters to your Administration on this specific topic have gone unanswered. To date, these veterans have yet to receive a justification for why the Administration has failed to act or an expected timeline for action. At best, the answers provided by Administration officials have been inconsistent. At worst, they have been misleading. It took a Freedom of Information Act request to confirm that the former VA Secretary David Shulkin pushed the White House to add new health conditions to the presumptive list, and that the proposal was blocked by the White House and the Office of Management and Budget due to costs. It is unfortunate that an Administration seemingly eager to send more servicemembers into combat, refuses to consider the consequences that extend beyond the battlefield. It is well past time for your Administration to acknowledge the considerable effects service has on one’s health, and accept that Agent Orange exposure is most certainly a cost of war.
Instead of justice, these Vietnam Veterans have been subject to additional and unwarranted delays and calls for further evaluation of scientific research that has already been reviewed by the National Academies of Medicine (NAM). In NAM’s March 10, 2016 report, Hypothyroidism and Bladder Cancer were found to have “limited or suggestive evidence of an association” to Agent Orange exposure. This same report expanded the definition of Parkinson’s disease, which was in the “limited or suggestive evidence of an association” category, to include Parkinson-like symptoms or Parkinsonism. Finally, NAM’s November 15, 2018 report showed “sufficient evidence of an association” for Hypertension to Agent Orange. “Limited or suggestive evidence of an association” has historically been sufficient for VA to grant presumptive authority for other conditions, and there has never been a condition in the “sufficient evidence of an association” category which was not included on VA’s presumptive list.
Unfortunately, your Administration recently squandered another opportunity to right a wrong and explain your plans to deliver care and benefits to Vietnam Veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Instead, in a report required by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations bill you signed in December, the VA questioned the value of the scientific evidence from the NAM. NAM’s reports have been the standard for scientific evidence of association for more than twenty years. But it is now clear that your Administration is intent on changing the rules at the eleventh hour and forcing veterans with Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and Hypertension to meet a different – perhaps unattainable – standard. That is unacceptable.
Mr. President, it is time to end the wait for the more than approximately 190,000 frustrated and desperate veterans who are currently living with and dying from these health conditions. It would be consistent with how previous Administrations have acted, and it is simply the right thing to do for them and their families.