By Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Mike Hixenbaugh for The Virginian-Pilot
With 2016 drawing to a close and a new presidential administration poised to take over, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs faces an array of decisions related to the herbicide Agent Orange, which contained the toxic chemical dioxin and was used to kill vegetation during the Vietnam War.
Whether to expand the list of diseases that are presumed to be linked to Agent Orange.
In the past, the VA has found enough evidence to link 14 health conditions, including various cancers, to Agent Orange exposure. In March, a federal panel of scientific experts said there is now evidence to suggest that Agent Orange exposure may be linked to bladder cancer and hypothyroidism. It also confirmed, as previous experts have said, that there is some evidence of an association with hypertension, stroke and various neurological ailments similar to Parkinson’s Disease.
Since then, a VA-led study has found stronger evidence to link hypertension, more commonly known as high blood pressure, to Agent Orange exposure. But high blood pressure is common as people age, so compensating veterans for the condition could be expensive.
If the VA adds those conditions to its list of diseases connected to Agent Orange, anyone who has them and who stepped foot in Vietnam—even for a day–could be eligible for disability payments from the VA.
The VA had planned to make decisions this year, initially as early as August, before the election. But in a recent statement, the agency said, “For this administration, the deadline for proposing new rules for potential new presumptions (of service connection) has passed and this will become work for the new administration to take to completion.”
ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot have profiled the efforts of vets with bladder cancer to secure benefits.
Whether to make naval veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam eligible for benefits.
Though most didn’t step foot in Vietnam, some 90,000 Navy vets who served offshore may have been exposed to the Agent Orange and are seeking benefits. Advocates for the so-called Blue Water Navy veterans have been asking the VA for more than a decade to broaden the policy to include them. They say that they were exposed to Agent Orange because their ships sucked in potentially contaminated water and distilled it for showering, drinking, laundry and cooking. Experts have said the distillation process could have actually concentrated the Agent Orange.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in April 2015 struck down VA rules that denied compensation for sailors whose ships docked at certain harbors in South Vietnam, including Da Nang. Those ports, the court determined, may have been in the Agent Orange spraying area. The court ordered the VA to review its policy.
But in February, the VA largely stood by its old policy and once again asserted that there’s no scientific justification or legal requirement for covering veterans who served off the coast. A bill in Congress to change that had 336 sponsors in the House and 47 in the Senate. But it did not become law. Advocates have said they will try again.
ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot have written about these naval vets, documenting their efforts to prove their ships came into Vietnam’s rivers or sent their crews ashore, for even a day, making them eligible for benefits under VA policy.
Whether to extend coverage to service members who served along the Korean demilitarized zone during the Vietnam War and who say they were exposed, as well.
Herbicides were not used exclusively in Vietnam. The VA currently provides benefits for Agent Orange-related diseases to veterans who served in or near the Korean DMZ between April 1, 1968 and Aug. 31, 1971. Some veterans, backed by several senators and members of Congress, say the start date should be earlier.
They cite a declassified January 1969 document that cited use of herbicides in the DMZ for tests that began on Oct. 9, 1967.
“We’re not victims, we’re not heroes,” said Eugene Clarke, the Connecticut veteran pushing for the change. “But we want what we deserve.”
In a letter this month to Rep. Thomas MacArthur, R-New Jersey, a VA official said the matter was being reviewed. “We take our obligation to research these matters very seriously and will provide you with a more comprehensive response as quickly as we can,” Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits Thomas Murphy wrote.
Whether veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange can affect their descendents.
For decades, the Department of Veterans Affairs has collected — and ignored — reams of information that could have helped answer that question, an investigation by ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot has found.
Its medical staff has physically examined more than 668,000 Vietnam veterans possibly exposed to Agent Orange, documenting health conditions and noting when and where they served. For at least 34 years, the agency also has asked questions about their children’s birth defects, before and after the war.
A recent ProPublica analysis found that the odds of having a child born with birth defects during or after the war were more than a third higher for veterans who say they handled, sprayed or were directly sprayed with Agent Orange than for veterans who say they weren’t exposed or weren’t sure. Experts said more research is needed and that the VA should be taking it on.
This month, Congress passed a bill that requires, among other things, that the VA pay for an analysis of all research done thus far on the descendents of veterans with toxic exposure. It also requires the agency to determine the feasibility of future research and, if such studies are possible, to pursue them.
The VA said it recently asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to look into whether exposure to Agent Orange could have effects in vets’ offspring. It could be a couple years before any report is issued with recommendations for future research.