Senator Webb, we need you on this.
U.S. Senator Jim Webb Virginia
248 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Toll Free Number
By Rick Maze
A $13.4 billion expansion of Agent Orange-related benefits for Vietnam veterans could be delayed because a key senator wants more information on why three new conditions are being added to the list of disabilities assumed to have been caused by the herbicide.
This could delay payments by at least two months, maybe longer, from whatever date the Veterans Affairs Department publishes its final implementation rules.
The Senate included money to cover the benefits in the $58.8 billion supplemental spending bill passed on May 27, but only after approving an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that prevented the money from being spent until Congress has time to review final regulations for expanding the benefits. Webb wants 60 days for Congress to review and approve or disapprove of the policy.
Whether Webb’s limitations will stand is unclear. The House is still preparing its version of the supplemental bill, which is not expected to contain the same restrictions. Differences between the House and Senate bills would have to be reconciled before a final bill passes.
At issue is a VA announcement in October that it intends to add three medical conditions — hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease — to the list of disabilities presumed to have a connection to exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant widely used during the Vietnam War.
VA’s proposed application regulations were published for comment, with VA prepared to begin making payments after a final rule is issued. There is no firm deadline for when that might happen, but VA is seeking the $13.4 billion outside of the normal budget process so it can pay the benefits, which could involve retroactive payments to some Vietnam veterans.
VA officials warned earlier this year that a flood of Agent Orange-related claims could result in a temporary increase in the backlog of overall disability claims once payments begin.
Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran and a member of the Senate armed services and veterans’ affairs committees, is not the kind of lawmaker who jumps to mind as someone who would hold up benefits, and he made clear as he pushed for the limitation that he believes in taking care of veterans who served in Vietnam.
“We do want to take care of our veterans who served and incurred disabilities or diseases as a result of that service,” he said.
The Agent Orange expansion approved by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki carries a $42.2 billion price tag over the next 10 years, but the plan has not been fully explained to Congress, Webb said.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee twice scheduled hearings to review the VA’s proposal, only to have the hearings canceled when the administration would not supply witnesses, Webb said.
In a June 4 letter to VA spelling out his concerns, Webb said he thinks study is needed because the Agent Orange benefits were initially intended to cover “relatively rare conditions with a positive association between exposure and the disease.” This has changed over time to include what he called “common diseases of aging” such as prostate cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Of particular concern to Webb is the proposed addition of ischemic heart disease, which affects 14 million mostly elderly Americans. The risk has been linked to smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and age.
“Heart disease is a common phenomenon regardless of potential exposure to Agent Orange,” Webb said in the letter to Shinseki.
Webb said on the Senate floor that heart disease alone could account for $31 billion of the $42.2 billion cost over the next decade, which he thinks is more than enough reason to look at what scientific evidence VA has to support a presumption that exposure to Agent Orange is the reason a Vietnam veteran has the ailment.
“I take a back seat to no one in my concern for our veterans,” Webb said. “I have spent my entire adult life one way or the other involved in veterans law. But I do think we need to have practical, proper procedures.”