Veterans can remain optimistic

Anthony Principi, former secretary of veterans affairs, warned last week that disabled veterans and their families will suffer if Americans “lose faith in the integrity” of VA disability compensation system.

Thankfully, for hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans in line to be compensated for three additional diseases linked Agent Orange exposure, few senators seemed ready to grapple with that issue any time soon.

The hearing that many veterans feared boosted confidence that, in the months ahead, they will be found newly qualified for disability payments. But it also revealed that up to $4 billion a year more in compensation will be paid in part because VA and Congress have mishandled this volatile issue.

As witnesses explained, the government cut short or never sponsored a host of potential Agent Orange studies that might have better informed on levels of exposure, or the relative incidence of herbicide-linked conditions among Vietnam veterans versus other populations.

Congress in turn left the 1991 Agent Orange law on automatic pilot and with such ambiguous guidance that VA secretaries are strapped to make presumptive disease decisions with confidence. The result is uncertainty now about the fairness of some Agent Orange claims for veterans and taxpayers.

The hearing was held to have VA Secretary Eric Shinseki explain his decision of last October to add three diseases — ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and B-Cell leukemia — to the list of ailments presumed caused by herbicide exposure in the Vietnam War. He did so, noting how the law directs him to establish presumption of service connection “without regard to the projected costs or the existence of independent risk factors.”

Days after the hearing, a spokesman for Akaka said he will not “introduce a resolution of disapproval on the three new presumptive conditions.” But he is “studying possible improvements to the presumptive disability decision-making process” and that will continue into next year.

Leading the criticism of current law was Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Principi. Medical experts testified to positive associations between these ailments and Agent Orange but also noted gaps in knowledge and research.

Before a single witness testified, most senators present said Shinseki’s decision was appropriate and veterans deserved nothing less. They tossed aside worries over cost and doubts among colleagues that the Agent Orange law wasn’t intended to compensate for common age-related ailments.

Webb said the issue isn’t cost but credibility, whether it’s responsible to compensate for illnesses generally associated with aging or lifestyle, like heart disease, when no records exist for many veterans to confirm herbicide exposure and using “limited suggestive evidence” of a positive association.

Webb noted that before the Agent Orange Law was written, only three relatively rare diseases were linked by medical research to Agent Orange. Principi acknowledged that “diseases of ordinary life” are now being compensated. He said he doesn’t regret his own decision in 2001 to connect Type II diabetes to service in Vietnam. But he made three recommendations to improve current law which both Akaka and Webb said will be helpful.