Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Agent Orange Update

For years, many Vietnam veterans in poor health were convinced that the disease that destroyed their life after the war had something to do with Agent Orange. I spent years as a journalist trying to help find answers to these haunting health questions.

Now, three decades after trying to bury concerns about exposure to herbicides used in Vietnam, the Veterans Affairs Department is gearing up for a tidal wave of health claims that are expected to cost the federal government billions of dollars.

"VA estimates that 185,839 claims will be filed when new rules take effect later this year that presume service connection for certain illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure," Marine Corps Times reported this week. The illnesses being added to a substantial list of diseases that VA covers regarding Agent Orange are B cell leukemias, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease, a fairly common illness that is expected to account for the majority of new claims.

More than 80,000 of the anticipated claims are expected to be filed by veterans who were previously denied VA health coverage, the agency announced. Nearly 90,000 claims are expected by veterans with illnesses that will now be covered, but who never filed a claim. And more than 10,000 claims for financial compensation are expected from survivors of veterans who died of these diseases.The tab for handling all these medical cases is estimated at more than $13 billion this year and more than $42 billion over the next decade.

“This is an important step forward for Vietnam veterans suffering from these three illnesses,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement. “These warriors deserve medical care and compensation for health problems they have incurred.”

Three things have changed since the 1970s, when the VA bowed to Pentagon pronouncements that Agent Orange didn't cause health problems. A big change is the leadership on this issue provided by Shinseki, a retired general who served in Vietnam. Another major change is widespread public acknowledgement that veterans' concerns about the hazards of these herbicides have been proven valid by health investigators, despite repeated attempts by officials under Democratic and Republican administrations to derail these investigations.

The third big change is that veterans no longer have to prove that they were in a certain location in Vietnam on a certain day between 1961 and 1971, when Agent Orange was sprayed on jungle areas by US military airplanes, helicopters, trucks or soldiers with backpack sprayers.

"In practical terms, Veterans who served in Vietnam during the war and who have a 'presumed' illness don’t have to prove an association between their illnesses and their military service," the VA stated in its latest announcement. It also noted that it now covers 14 diseases associated with Agent Orange as a result of studies by health agencies that include the national Institute of Medicine.

But getting to this point took decades of persistent efforts by veterans whose concerns were brushed aside by previous heads of the VA and Department of Defense. When I did a newspaper investigation into this issue in 1980 that was carried by The Associated Press, for instance, the government's official stance--widely aired on national television by a Pentagon official--was that no unusual health problems were found by the VA in examinations of some 84,000 Vietnam veterans in 1978-79. Veterans groups then demanded independent health studies, which found a much different pattern.

" The growing list of Agent Orange diseases stems [from] a court case, Nehmer v. Department of Veterans Affairs, filed in 1986. The class action lawsuit won by veterans, and reinforced by legislation, requires VA to direct the National Academy of Sciences to report every two years on any positive association between new diseases and exposure to herbicides in Vietnam," syndicated columnist Tom Philpott noted in a military.com analysis of the latest news in this long-running bureaucratic battle.

"In 2007, the Bush administration went to court to challenge the legal need for NAS studies on presumptive AO diseases to continue. It lost," Philpott added. "The NAS reports are to continue through Oct. 1, 2014, with the [possibility] that more diseases will be found to have an assocition with herbicide exposure."

A San Francisco-based veterans advocacy group, Swords to Plowshares, hailed the latest VA action. ''Our country neglected Vietnam War veterans and denied the harmful effects of Agent Orange for too long,'' the group's executive director, Michael Blecker, said in a news release. ''Our hope at Swords to Plowshares is that every Vietnam War veteran affected by the harmful chemicals will act now to file for what they are owed with the assistance of a veterans group.''

The VA bureaucracy can be so daunting that Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, urged the VA to give automatic approval to health claims related to Agent Orange, subject to double-checking that the veteran served in Vietnam. Shinseki ordered the VA to hire an additional 1,800 people to process the expected deluge of new claims, Marine Corps Times reported.

According to the VA's latest statement on this issue, other illnesses previously recognized as caused by exposure to herbicides during the Vietnam War are:

  • AL Amyloidosis,
  • Acute and Subacute Transient Peripheral Neuropathy,
  • Chloracne or other Acneform Disease consistent with Chloracne,
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, (now being expanded)
  • Diabetes Mellitus (Type 2),
  • Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,
  • Porphyria Cutanea Tarda,
  • Prostate Cancer,
  • Respiratory Cancers (Cancer of the lung, bronchus, larynx, or trachea), 
  • Soft Tissue Sarcoma (other than Osteosarcoma, Chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or Mesothelioma).
For more information about the VA's new rules on Agent Orange: www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange.