WASHINGTON -- Researchers with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found for the first time that enough evidence exists to link hypertension to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War.
The finding, announced Thursday, bolsters the case for veterans with hypertension to be granted easier access to Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, advocates argued. Before last week's announcement, researchers had determined there was only "limited" or "suggestive" evidence hypertension could be caused by chemical herbicides used in Vietnam.
In addition to hypertension, researchers determined there's sufficient evidence linking Agent Orange to monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, or MGUS, a condition in which an abnormal protein is in the blood that progress to other disorders, including some forms of blood cancer. A link between the condition and Vietnam War service hadn't been considered previously.
Based on the new report, Vietnam Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars called on VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to add hypertension and MGUS to the list of diseases presumed to be caused by Agent Orange. There are 14 diseases on the list, and veterans suffering from them are allowed quicker access to VA benefits.
"There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Agent Orange made veterans sick, it made their children sick, and it brought pain and suffering and premature death to many," VFW National Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a statement. "We now call on VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to use his authority and recognize the science in the report to swiftly add these two illnesses to the presumptive list so that these veterans can finally receive the assistance they earned and deserve."
Congress requires the National Academies of Sciences to review scientific literature about Agent Orange exposure every two years. The first report was published in 1994.
There have been previous attempts to get hypertension onto the list of presumptive diseases.
Following the 2016 report, when researchers recognized there was "suggestive" evidence linking hypertension to Agent Orange, the VA sent a recommendation to the White House that it be added. At the same time, the agency recommended adding three other diseases: bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson's-like tremors.
The recommendation is still sitting in the Office of Management and Budget. Members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs were told in June that OMB was waiting on the results of two studies before making a decision. One of the studies isn't expected to be complete until 2020.
With the new report bolstering their case, Rick Weidman, policy director for Vietnam Veterans of America, is pushing for Wilkie and President Donald Trump to add hypertension and MGUS. But he has his doubts.
Earlier this fall, Wilkie came out opposed to legislation that would extent Agent Orange benefits to tens of thousands of "Blue Water" Navy veterans who served on ships off the coast during the Vietnam War. At the time, Wilkie cited high costs and a lack of scientific evidence as his reasoning.
"With the actions of the new secretary in regard to Blue Water Navy, I'm not hopeful," Weidman said. "It all has to do with the president. It depends on whether he loves us enough to spend money on us."
If the executive branch won't move on the issue, Congress needs to step in, he said.
"It really depends on Congress and how much pressure they're willing to put on the VA to act," Weidman said.