The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the results of two research studies that Veterans Affairs officials say are needed to determine whether new health conditions should be added to the list of Agent Orange-connected diseases.
A VA spokeswoman said Tuesday that results of the two studies -- the Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study, or VE-HEROeS, and the Vietnam Era Mortality Study -- aren't expected until at least next year, and in the case of the mortality study, until "mid-2021."
"There has been a shift in the schedule for [VE-HEROes] ... because the team members responsible for handling these duties are supporting VA's response to the COVID-19 national emergency," VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said in a statement to Military.com.
"The Vietnam Mortality study,” she added, “is expected to be submitted for peer review and publication starting in mid-2021.”
VA officials had said they were waiting for the results to be analyzed, reviewed and readied for publication before they would make a decision on adding bladder cancer, Parkinsonism, hypothyroidism or hypertension to the list of Agent Orange presumptive conditions.
Some 34,000 Vietnam-era veterans were exposed to herbicides during the war and later diagnosed with bladder cancer, Parkinsonism or hypothyroidism. More than 156,000 veterans who served and were exposed have been diagnosed with hypertension, or high blood pressure.
In March 2019, Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration -- told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that a decision would likely be made within ninety days.
That was 21 months ago.
Since then, VA officials, including Secretary Robert Wilkie, have said they were waiting for results of the two studies to be published, which they anticipated would be in late 2020.
In January, Wilkie pushed back against a 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that said there was limited or suggestive evidence of an association between Agent Orange and the listed conditions, and a 2018 report that also found sufficient evidence for linking high blood pressure to herbicide exposure.
Wilke sent a report to Congress saying VA experts found "significant concerns and limitations" with the NASEM reports. The department would wait, he said, until the results of its own studies to announce any decision.
VA is committed to "the continued study of Agent Orange and its associated adverse health effects as well as regular review of all emerging evidence of adverse impacts to veterans from Agent Orange," Wilkie wrote in his report.
“Unfortunately, science is difficult,” Stone said in February.
Members of Congress have accused VA of intentionally delaying a decision that could cost the department between $11.2 billion and $15.2 billion, depending on interpretations of a related court ruling.
Seventy-seven House Democrats sent a letter in February to President Donald Trump asking that all four diseases be added to the presumptives list -- a move that would affect more than 190,000 veterans.
In September, in an effort to compromise, a bipartisan group of 46 Senate lawmakers pushed to add three diseases to the list, omitting hypertension. They have asked that legislation be added to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which is currently being ironed out in conference.
"Tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans suffer from these three conditions due to their military service, yet these veterans continue to be denied the care and benefits they have earned and desperately need," wrote the senators, including Democrat Jon Tester of Montana and Republican Mike Rounds of South Dakota.
Dr. David Shulkin, who served as VA secretary from January 2017 to March 2018, planned to release his decision to add three presumptives -- bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism -- in late 2017, but the outcome was never released.
Documents obtained by Military Times and Military.com indicated that the Office of Management and Budget and White House advisers were responsible for the delay, citing cost concerns and requiring additional scientific evidence to support the connection between herbicide exposure and the illnesses.
The change now hinges on an addition to the National Defense Authorization Act or a new administration. President Elect Joe Biden is expected to take his oath of office Jan. 20, 2021. He has not announced his choice to head the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Noel reiterated VA's commitment to waiting for the research.
"We have no further announcements at this time," she said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.