VA Sec Shinseki Fighting off Dem Senators on Expanded Agent Orange-related Illnesses

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Agent Orange Sprayed
Spraying Agent Orange

Why Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) are trying to screw veterans on Agent Orange is in a word: Mystifying.

By Tom Philpott

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki met with a key member of Congress last month to ask that he cancel a hearing on the secretary’s controversial decision to add three diseases to the list of illnesses presumed caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, reluctantly agreed to the request, an informed source told Military Update.

The VA thus avoided a brighter public spotlight, so far, on a decision that could help tens of thousands of veterans but also will add $13.6 billion to compensation claims in a single year.

Akaka and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a committee member, are pressing Shinseki outside of the hearing process to explain last October’s decision to add heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and B-cell leukemia to the list of illnesses presumed caused by Agent Orange.

Several weeks after their meeting, Akaka followed up on a March letter to Shinseki with a new one, this one asking the secretary for more details on the consequences of presuming service-connection for ischemic heart disease to any veteran who can show he stepped foot in Vietnam.

Katie Roberts, Shinseki’s press secretary, had no comment on whether the private meeting occurred. She did note in an e-mail that “VA’s primary mission is to be an advocate for veterans of all eras” and that “veterans who endure health problems as a result of their service deserve better.”

“Throughout the entire Agent Orange review process,” Roberts added, “VA has followed the rules created by Congress.”

A spokesman for Akaka could not say “what was discussed in a personal meeting.” But the committee had scheduled an April 21 hearing on Shinseki’s Agent Orange decision. At VA’s request that was reset to May 5. But the hearing topic changed again when VA refused to provide witnesses.

“Chairman Akaka remains concerned about the decision and still intends to pursue this matter in the committee,” said Jesse Broder Van Dyke. “The hearing could be rescheduled again in the late summer or fall.”

Veterans diagnosed with a presumptive Agent Orange disease can file for a service-connected disability rating and monthly compensation. Surviving spouses too can file claims, for dependency and indemnity compensation, if married veterans die of service-connected ailments.

VA issued an interim regulation in March for implementing Shinseki’s decision, even cutting the 60-day comment period in half. However, because of the large cost involved, Webb in late May attached an amendment to a war supplemental bill to prevent claims under the newly presumptive diseases from being paid until 60 days after a final regulation is published.

That final rule likely won’t be published until fall, at the earliest, but when claims can be paid they will be retroactive from the date first filed.

Webb’s maneuver is to give Congress more time to study the science behind Shinseki’s decision and how the hefty cost — $42.2 billion over 10 years — could affect other VA services. It’s a particular concern for Akaka.

To stop the regulation from taking effect, the House and Senate would have to pass a blocking resolution. Veterans service organizations say that is not likely to happen.

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