US Senate Passes Agent Orange bill to Extend VA Benefits

Credit: Department of Defense

The US Senate has approved by 94 votes to 6 to amend the defense policy bill to include hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and bladder cancer to the list of diseases accepted as a result of exposure to Agent Orange.

This means the Department of Veterans Affairs can pay benefits for veterans suffering from these diseases and exposure to the defoliant in Vietnam.

This amendment included in the Senate’s version of the bill will ensure a debate between the two houses. A similar clause was not included in the bill presented to the House of Representatives. The contents of the bill will have to be reconciled before being signed into law.

The Democrat senator from Montana, Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and sponsor of the bill, said that these amendments were long overdue and represented justice for some 22,000 veterans.

In a speech to the Senate, Senator Tester said that it was a sacred duty to care for those men wounded because of service to their country. He went on to say that these three diseases are linked to exposure to toxic chemicals used in Vietnam and that the care for those exposed is a cost of the war.

Map showing locations of U.S. Army aerial Agent Orange spray missions in South Vietnam taking place from 1965 to 1971.
Map showing locations of U.S. Army aerial Agent Orange spray missions in South Vietnam taking place from 1965 to 1971.

The men debilitated due to these three diseases have been waiting since 2016 for the Veteran’s Administration to decide whether they would add the new conditions to the current list, which contains 14 diseases.

In 2016 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published findings that there was enough evidence that hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and bladder cancer could definitively be linked to exposure to the herbicides sprayed during the Vietnam War.

Mangrove forests, like the top one east of Saigon, were often destroyed by Agent Orange.
Mangrove forests, like the top one east of Saigon, were often destroyed by Agent Orange.

Two years later, in 2018, the Academies found evidence linking afflictions such as hypertension and similar illnesses to defoliants such as Agent Orange.

The Senate bill did not include hypertension in their amendment. According to VA estimates, this is a common ailment amongst the elderly, and its inclusion would have added over two million veterans to the disability roll at a cost thought to be between US$11 and US$15 billion.

The compromise to exclude hypertension has angered some advocacy groups who have stated that they will continue to press for this to be included.

A past VA Secretary, David Shulkin, stated his support for the inclusion of hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and bladder cancer on the list of possible diseases, but he did not formally make a request for their inclusion.

Leaking Agent Orange barrels at Johnston Atoll circa 1973.
Leaking Agent Orange barrels at Johnston Atoll circa 1973.

Internal VA documents show that he had been on the point of requesting their inclusion when White House officials and the Office of Management and Budget lodged objections as they believed there was insufficient scientific evidence to support the request.

The Congressional Budget Office provided both houses with a rough estimate that the amendment would cost US$10 billion. This estimate was why the amendment was struck from the bill for the House of Representatives by the House Rules Committee as it did not have a way to cover the costs.

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An unnamed source said that there were questions around the estimated price tag of US$10 billion As this source pointed out, the costs were highly unlikely to escalate as many of the vets were of an age where they are passing on and while there may be spousal benefits to pay, they too are getting elderly.