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Senators call for administration to stop denying scientific evidence and expand presumptive conditions, ensure needed care for veterans

Senate Dems: “These heroes deserve more than inaction and indecision from their own government – they deserve justice”

WASHINGTON, DC – This week, U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the top Democrat on the Senate health committee, and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and 40 of their Senate colleagues in sending a letter condemning the Trump administration for stonewalling critical benefits to Vietnam veterans suffering from health conditions associated with their exposure to Agent Orange. In their letter, the senators specifically called on the administration to stop denying scientific evidence and end the years-long delay of adding bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and hypertension to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) list of service-connected presumptive conditions.

“Your Administration’s refusal to add these conditions to the presumptive list continues to deny more than 190,000 sick and aging veterans the health care and compensation they have earned and desperately need,” the senators wrote. “More than fifty years after their service and sacrifice, these veterans continue to suffer the detrimental effects of their exposure each day. These heroes deserve more than inaction and indecision from their own government— they deserve justice.”

Since the Agent Orange Act of 1991, VA has established a presumption of service-connection for 14 diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAESM) reports. However, in a recent report required by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2020 Appropriations bill, VA called into question the scientific evidence put forth by the National Academies of Medicine (NAM), noting “significant concerns and limitations” in the findings of NAESM scientists. VA also cited additional requirements in the department’s standards for presumptive conditions, delaying the consideration of care and compensation for thousands of suffering veterans.

The senators continued, “It is unfortunate that an Administration seemingly eager to send more servicemembers into combat, refuses to consider the consequences that extend beyond the battlefield...NAM’s reports have been the standard for scientific evidence of association for more than twenty years. But it is now clear that your Administration is intent on changing the rules at the eleventh hour and forcing veterans with Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and Hypertension to meet a different—perhaps unattainable— standard. That is unacceptable.”

Disabled American Veterans (DAV) also weighed in on the issue, stating: “DAV is extremely disappointed by the VA’s latest report and Secretary Wilkie’s choice to further delay his decision to add four conditions to the list of Agent Orange presumptive diseases. The medical evidence reviewed by scientists at the National Academies for Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is clear, and has been for some time. This should not be a question of cost, it should be about justice and taking care of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have suffered the adverse health effects of toxic exposure during their military service. The VA has had adequate time and sufficient scientific evidence to make a determination and to ensure veterans get the healthcare and benefits they need. It is time to end the wait.”

Washington state is home to over 92,000 Vietnam veterans, and more than 18,000 of these veterans receive compensation for past exposure to Agent Orange, according to VA. Senator Cantwell has been a tireless advocate for issues affecting Washington’s veterans throughout her time in the Senate. This year, Cantwell cosponsored the repeal of the military widow’s tax, which passed as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). She has also been at the forefront of the fight to provide affordable housing for veterans, introducing the bipartisan Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, which would build more than 550,000 new affordable housing units around the country, including almost 10,000 in Washington state, and strengthen veteran-specific housing options. Cantwell also cosponsored a bill to modernize and strengthen education benefits for veterans, which was signed into law in 2017.

A senior member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the daughter of a WWII veteran, Senator Murray has been a longtime champion for veterans in Washington state and across the country. In particular, Senator Murray has worked to ensure that veterans of the Vietnam War receive the care that they earned, previously pushing VA to extend coverage to veterans exposed to Agent Orange and successfully fighting to extend the popular VA Caregiver Support Program to all veterans with service-connected injuries or illness, not just those who served post-9/11. Senator Murray has also fought to address the many other issues facing veterans today, including leading the charge against President Trump’s attempts to cut funding for the successful HUD-VASH housing program for veterans then securing millions of dollars in HUD-VASH funding to assist Washington state veterans facing housing insecurity, and successfully pushing the Trump administration to finally implement automatic student debt relief to veterans with disabilities after years of years of pressure and urging.

In addition to Senators Murray, Cantwell, and Tester, the letter was also signed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Gary Peters (D-MI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bob Casey (D-PA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-OR), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Tina Smith (D-MN), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Tom Udall (D-NM), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Mark Warner (D-VA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Jack Reed (D-RI).

A copy of the letter can be found HERE and below:

February 12, 2020

Dear President Trump,

 

For far too long, your Administration has stonewalled extending critical benefits to gravely ill veterans whose service in Vietnam exposed them to Agent Orange. As a result, these veterans suffer from Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and Hypertension- health conditions that each meet the historical standard for being added to the Department of Veterans

Affairs' (VA) presumptive list for service-connection as it relates to Agent Orange exposure.

Your Administration's refusal to add these conditions to the presumptive list continues to deny more than 190,000 sick and aging veterans the health care and compensation they have earned and desperately need. More than fifty years after their service and sacrifice, these veterans continue to suffer the detrimental effects of their exposure each day. These heroes deserve more than inaction and indecision from their own government—they deserve justice.

Previous letters to your Administration on this specific topic have gone unanswered. To date, these veterans have yet to receive a justification for why the Administration has failed to act or an expected timeline for action. At best, the answers provided by Administration officials have been inconsistent. At worst, they have been misleading. It took a Freedom of Information Act request to confirm that the former VA Secretary David Shulkin pushed the White House to add new health conditions to the presumptive list, and that the proposal was blocked by the White House and the Office of Management and Budget due to costs. It is unfortunate that an Administration seemingly eager to send more servicemembers into combat, refuses to consider the consequences that extend beyond the battlefield. It is well past time for your Administration to acknowledge the considerable effects service has on one's health, and accept that Agent Orange exposure is most certainly a cost of war.

Instead of justice, these Vietnam Veterans have been subject to additional and unwarranted delays and calls for further evaluation of scientific research that has already been reviewed by the National Academies of Medicine (NAM). In NAM's March 10, 2016 report, Hypothyroidism and Bladder Cancer were found to have "limited or suggestive evidence of an association" to Agent Orange exposure. This same report expanded the definition of Parkinson's disease, which was in the "limited or suggestive evidence of an association" category, to include Parkinson-like symptoms or Parkinsonism. Finally, NAM's November 15, 2018 report showed "sufficient evidence of an association" for Hypertension to Agent Orange. "Limited or suggestive evidence of an association" has historically been sufficient for VA to grant presumptive authority for other conditions, and there has never been a condition in the "sufficient evidence of an association" category which was not included on VA's presumptive list.

Unfortunately, your Administration recently squandered another opportunity to right a wrong and explain your plans to deliver care and benefits to Vietnam Veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Instead, in a report required by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations bill you signed in December, the VA questioned the value of the scientific evidence from the NAM. NAM's reports have been the standard for scientific evidence of association for more than twenty years, But it is now clear that your Administration is intent on changing the rules at the eleventh hour and forcing veterans with Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and Hypertension to meet a different—perhaps unattainable—standard. That is unacceptable.

Mr. President, it is time to end the wait for the more than approximately 190,000 frustrated and desperate veterans who are currently living with and dying from these health conditions. It would be consistent with how previous Administrations have acted, and it is simply the right thing to do for them and their families.

Sincerely,

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