Vietnam veterans with one of three health conditions recently added by Congress to the list of illnesses presumed related to Agent Orange exposure are waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to adopt rules to expedite their disability claims.
On Tuesday, new VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department is looking at the applicable rules and developing a timeline to implement benefits for the presumptive illnesses, including bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism.
He declined to provide a time frame, however.
"We're building that now. ... I'm on the hook to get it," McDonough said. "I feel some urgency because it's statute."
A section of the fiscal 2021 national defense bill passed by Congress on Jan. 1 requires the VA to expedite disability claims and benefits for Vietnam veterans suffering from one or more of the three illnesses.
VA officials said earlier this year that it may take up to two years for new rules to be implemented that would provide veterans access to these benefits.
McDonough said, however, that lawmakers have pressed him on the issue.
"There is a strong bipartisan coalition and bipartisan ethos in Congress on VA, so we're going to continue to be under the gun on that," he said.
A panel of researchers with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine determined in 2016 that there was evidence demonstrating that bladder cancer and hypothyroidism are linked to exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the Vietnam War. They added that Parkinson's-like symptoms should be included on the list, which already contains Parkinson's disease.
Under the Trump administration, officials balked at adding the conditions to the presumptive list. Former VA Secretary David Shulkin had sought to add them in 2017 but was thwarted by White House officials who requested more scientific evidence to demonstrate a link.
McDonough's predecessor, Robert Wilkie, said he planned to wait for the outcomes of two studies on Vietnam veterans before deciding whether to include the three illnesses, as well as hypertension. In 2018, the National Academies said they had found sufficient evidence demonstrating a link between chemical exposure and hypertension, as well as monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, or MGUS, a blood disorder.
An estimated 34,000 veterans have one or more of the three approved conditions and would be eligible for health care and disability benefits under the new law.
At least 160,000 Vietnam veterans enrolled in VA health care have hypertension, which would add an estimated $11.2 billion to $15.2 billion over 10 years if it were added to the list.
McDonough said he has asked VA leaders to get him the best information available on the alleged hypertension link so he can begin to "scrape in on it."
“When I ask questions, people oftentimes are inclined to focus first on cost. I want to focus first on the facts and on the data, especially since so many vets have been waiting a while on this," he said.