(U.S. Senate) – Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jon Tester (D-Mont.) led six colleagues in a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, urging the Department to take action on behalf of thousands of veterans across the country living with chronic health conditions, by expanding the Department’s list of medical conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange.
In their letter, the Senators detailed the lack of movement from VA on adding health-related outcomes to the presumptive list for herbicide exposure. They also pushed the Department to follow through on self-imposed deadlines, as proposed in a letter sent by Secretary Wilkie at the beginning of this year. The letter was signed by Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
“Mr. Secretary, thousands of veterans – many of whom are aging and in urgent need of critical health care and other benefits – have waited far too long for a final decision that should have been made by the VA in 2016,” wrote the Senators. “We therefore urge you to add Parkinsonism, Bladder Cancer, Hypertension and Hyperthyroidism to the list of presumptive health outcomes for service-connected exposure to Agent Orange without further delay.”
Currently, VA provides presumptions for seven of the twelve health outcomes for which the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) has found a suggestive association between herbicide exposure and a particular medical condition. However, the four above-named conditions have yet to be recognized by VA. In fact, hypertension is now recognized by NAM as having positive association, or an even stronger link, with herbicide exposure. A presumption of exposure means that if a veteran served in a specific area during a defined time frame, VA will presume that they were exposed to certain harmful chemicals or environmental hazards.
The Senators also called into question the Department’s delay in adding Parkinsonism to the list of conditions: “It seems arbitrary to make a distinction between Parkinson’s and Parkinsonism as both severely affect the health and quality of life for veterans… We owe it to our veterans to lift the burden of proving their symptoms are the nexus for service-connected herbicide exposure.”
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed Senator Tester’s bipartisan Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act into law— a historic and long overdue legislative step to ensure that more Vietnam Veterans living with the effects of exposure to Agent Orange receive the benefits and care they have earned and urgently need. This law also extends presumption of Agent Orange exposure to more veterans who served in or near the Korean Demilitarized Zone and provide benefits to children of Vietnam veterans who served in Thailand and were born with spina bifida.
Tester also introduced the Occupational and Environmental Transparency Health (OATH) Act, bipartisan legislation that requires the Department of Defense to track active duty military personnel and veterans’ exposed to harmful chemicals in a system. He successfully worked to include this bill in the annual must-pass defense bill, the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Read the full letter to Secretary Wilkie HERE.