Last year, a group of federal scientists was debating whether as many as 2,100 Air Force veterans should qualify for cash benefits for ailments they claimed stemmed from flying aircraft contaminated by Agent Orange.
An outside panel of experts had already determined that the scientific evidence showed the vets were likely exposed to the toxic herbicide.
The scientists within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs agreed the airmen had a strong case. But they had a more calculated concern: If the VA doled out cash to these veterans, others might want it too, according to an internal document obtained by ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot.
The group put their worries in writing. In a draft memo, they warned the secretary of Veterans Affairs that giving benefits to the airmen might prompt “additional pressure” from other veteran groups.
Such political and financial concerns aren’t supposed to play into decisions about Agent Orange benefits, veterans advocates and some legal experts say. Federal law requires that, in most cases, these decisions be guided strictly by science.
But an examination of two recent cases illustrates how dueling considerations of liability, responsibility and evolving scientific evidence weigh into VA deliberations.
“This shows what we’ve already suspected: At the VA, they’re more interested in politics, and protecting their turf and their bonuses than fulfilling their mission to assist veterans,” said John Wells, a Louisiana lawyer who has spent more than a decade advocating for 90,000 Navy vets fighting for Agent Orange benefits.
VA officials say they are committed to making sure qualified vets get benefits, and they believe the law allows them to consider the ramifications of their decisions when weighing the eligibility of new groups.
“Considering second order effects of a decision does not in any way violate the Agent Orange Act,” the VA’s general counsel’s office wrote in response to questions.
For the past year, ProPublica and The Pilot have been examining the effects Agent Orange has had on a growing group of veterans and their families. Decades after the end of the Vietnam War, many are suffering an array of health consequences and are struggling to prove they were exposed. In interviews, they blame the VA for obstructing their claims through denials or ever-escalating requests for information, a process some call “delay, deny, wait till I die.”