Two weeks ago, the House and Senate veterans affairs committees quietly allowed a provision of the Agent Orange Act of 1991 to expire. How significant that will be for Vietnam veterans and their benefits is disputed.
Committee staff and the Department of Veterans Affairs agree the change has not impacted the VA secretary’s authority to decide to expand the list of diseases presumed connected to wartime herbicide exposure.
But veteran advocates and at least one lawmaker suggest the change is intended to dampen VA cost risks and perhaps ease political pressure on the secretary and Congress facing a potential tsunami of disability claims.
That scenario assumes that a final review of medical science will establish a stronger link between Agent Orange and hypertension (high blood pressure), a condition that the Center for Disease Control says is so common it afflicts a third of the U.S. adult population
VA asked Congress to keep the Agent Orange law intact five more years. Rep. Timothy J. Walz, D-Minn., a VA committee member, offered a compromise, a bill to leave the law unchanged for two years, long enough so its secretarial review requirements held during VA consideration of a final report of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences on health conditions associated with Agent Orange.
The VA committees declined to back these delays because, said a House committee staff member, under separate law “the secretary already has authority to make such [presumption] decisions, and we felt he did not need to be compelled by [the Agent Orange] law to do so.”
The provision that “sunset” Oct. 1 required the secretary to adhere to certain standards and procedures in determining if additional diseases associated with herbicide exposure should be presumed service connected. Vietnam War veterans diagnosed with ailments on the presumptive list qualify for VA disability pay and medical care.
The expired provision also set a timetable for the secretary to accept or reject IOM findings and required him to explain in writing if he declined to add IOM identified conditions to the presumptive list.
Walz told colleagues at a hearing last week they effectively “allowed the Agent Orange Act to expire” and “it’s altogether possible” the next IOM report, due in March, will support adding hypertension and stroke to the presumptive list. Consequently, Walz said, “literally hundreds of thousands of people” will be able to point to scientific data showing they experienced health consequences from exposure to Agent Orange.
“And the pressure is going to be on,” he warned.