Tuesday, August 31, 2010

VA changes will make it easier for Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange to apply for benefits

From The Federal Eye in The Washington Post:

More than 150,000 Vietnam War veterans may apply for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs in the next 18 months thanks to new regulations making it easier to compensate for health problems caused by exposure to the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange.

The changes could result in payouts of about $42 billion in the next decade. But they could still face resistance from lawmakers concerned about the VA paying out claims for ailments that are common in elderly Americans anyway, despite military service.

Under the new regulations set for publication in Tuesday's Federal Register, VA will presume that veterans who served in Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975 were exposed to Agent Orange and will add three medical conditions -- hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease -- to its list of disabilities presumed to have a connection to exposure to the herbicide.

VA also plans to review about 90,000 previously denied claims from veterans who previously sought benefits for Agent Orange-related health problems.

The changes could result in about $13 billion in benefits payments in the next year, VA Acting Undersecretary for Benefits Michael Walcoff said Saturday.

“There will be articles out there written by writers -- we’re working with a writer right now who’s very negative about this -- very negative about the fact it’s going to cost so much money,” Walcoff told attendees at the American Legion National Convention. “Very negative about the fact that anybody who was in country in Vietnam qualifies for this. That’s the kind of thinking that’s out there."

“The fact is we’re obeying the law," Walcoff told attendees. "The law says that anybody who was in country is entitled to the presumptions. Besides that, I believe that what we’re doing is the right thing to do. It’s what [VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki] wants to do.”

Rick Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, also defended the high costs, saying they should be considered in the same context of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We would make the point that many, many times the number of troops originally estimated have [traumatic brain injury] coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan," Weidman said. "Should we not then award it because it’s too many people.? It’s the same argument – an environmental wound is the same as a blast wound."

Congress included $13.4 billion for Agent Orange-related benefits in this year's $58 billion supplemental spending bill, but Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam veteran, has said that adding ischemic heart disease to VA's list of approved diseases could result in the department paying veterans for a disease they might have contracted anyway as they aged.

“I take a back seat to no one in my concern for our veterans. I have spent my entire adult life one way or the other involved in veterans law," Webb said in May. "But I do think we need to have practical, proper procedures and I do believe that the executive branch…needs to be held to an accountable standard.”

Webb sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on the new regulations on Sept. 23.