Monday, August 30, 2010

Politico: VA is changing the Agent Orange regulations

The bill for Agent Orange comes due - David Rogers -

By DAVID ROGERS | 8/30/10 4:32 AM EDT Updated: 8/30/10 9:51 AM EDT

Age and Agent Orange are closing in on Vietnam veterans, a legacy of hurt for those who served. It will be a very big bill for American taxpayers.

It’s a world turned upside down from decades ago when returning soldiers had to fight to get attention for deadly lymphomas linked to the herbicide. Now the frailties of men in their 60s — prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease — lead the list of qualified Agent Orange disabilities, and the result has been an explosion in claims and the government’s liability.

The latest expansion, approved by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in October, adds ischemic heart disease and Parkinson’s and will cost at least $42 billion over the next 10 years. The VA estimates 349,000 individuals are already receiving Agent Orange disability benefits, and that number could soon reach 500,000 — or one out of every four surviving Vietnam veterans by the VA’s count.

As the costs rise, so do the questions about the science involved and the box Washington put itself in by failing to address Agent Orange’s impact more directly at the outset.

And because Vietnam service is still such a political minefield for American politicians, the most telling, often edgy debate is among veterans themselves.

“It is what it is. The anecdotal evidence of Vietnam veterans dying and getting diseases earlier is enormous,” said an exasperated Richard Weidman, an Army medic in the war and now legislative director for Vietnam Veterans of America. “I know five people in the VVA leadership alone who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. In no other side of my life have I seen anything like that.”

Yet for many who saw Vietnam firsthand, a 1-to-4 ratio of service-connected disabilities for Agent Orange strains credibility. And this is especially the case when the top conditions are heart disease and diabetes, two illnesses so linked to diet and lifestyle.

“Heart disease is a common phenomenon regardless of potential exposure to Agent Orange,” wrote Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) in a June letter to Shinseki challenging the secretary’s decision. A decorated Marine infantry officer in the war, Webb has since softened his tone after catching heat for his stance. But with his urging, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 23 on the new regulations, slated to take effect by December.

“I just want to understand the logic of how they decided this latest service connection,” said Webb. “This is a helluva awkward position to be in where I’ve been an advocate all my adult life on veterans’ benefits. I just want to know how they got to this point.”

Backing Webb is Anthony Principi, also a Vietnam veteran, and VA secretary under former President George W. Bush.

“He’s gotten some heat, but how can anyone question his patriotism and what he has done?” Principi said of Webb. “It’s got to be looked at; it’s got to be addressed. ... This is serious. The numbers are dramatic.”

“We’re 40 years later and we need to ask, is there a better way to do this? You want to do what’s right for veterans,” he told POLITICO. “At the same time, you want to protect the integrity of the disability compensation program.”

The convergence of cost pressures now is striking as captured by events on Tuesday this week.

That morning, the VA expects the Federal Register to publish the new Agent Orange rules to implement the latest expansion of benefits, including heart disease coverage. And that evening, President Barack Obama will speak to the nation on the U.S. transition between Iraq and Afghanistan, two fresh post-Vietnam wars with their own legacies of new disability claims.

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