BYLINE: David Rogers
With costs mounting, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is laying the groundwork for a second look at the landmark 1991 Agent Orange law that has governed nearly two-decades of disability claims related to the herbicide widely used in the Vietnam War.
That was the consistent theme of a hearing Thursday that featured testimony by Cabinet secretaries past and present about living under the law's limits and navigating through the often vague scientific standards for judging what diseases qualify as service-connected claims.
Veterans Affairs Secy. Eric Shinseki strongly defended his controversial decision last year to add ischemic heart disease but allowed too that having just 60 days to reach a conclusion -as prescribed by the Agent Orange law- was "a bit constraining....a little challenging."
Former VA Secretary Anthony Principi, whose decision to add type 2 diabetes in 2001 has since led to an explosion is claims, was more blunt, saying he had desperately wanted clearer scientific evidence to help him sort through confounding life style factors, like diet or smoking, which might contribute to an illness.
"It's a greater challenge for secretaries, when you're dealing with the diabetes, the prostate cancer, because we know if we live long enough, we're going to die of prostate cancer, as well as heart disease," Principi said. "And those confounding factors really make it very, very difficult for us"
Indeed, Agent Orange claims are a world turned-upside-down from decades ago when returning soldiers had to fight to get attention to deadly lymphomas linked to the herbicide. Now the more common frailties of men in their sixties-prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease-lead the list, and VA estimates that one out of every four surviving Vietnam veterans could soon be collecting payments for one Agent Orange claim or another.
The hearing brought some touching moments. Shinseki, who served himself in Vietnam, repeatedly referred to the infantry soldiers then as "the youngsters."
"We are asking the secretary to play God," exclaimed Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, "At the end of the day, we used the poison and we poisoned our own people."
But for many who also served in the war, the sheer number of claims now defies credibility.
"If the American people lose faith in the integrity of the V.A.'s disability compensation system - and that's not just about cost - veterans and their families will most certainly suffer," said Principi, a Navy veteran of Vietnam. "And the surest way for that to happen is for the American people to believe that large numbers of veterans are being compensated for illnesses that may not be the result of their military service. And I think that's the crux of the issue."