Sunday, March 20, 2016

Agent Orange Health Assistance Still a Problem for Many Veterans

VA poster for veterans assistance

By Daniel Mercurio

Not all wartime veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange are qualified to earn disability compensation. This has sparked a tremendous amount of controversy between the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and countless numbers of ailing veterans, particularly those who served during the Vietnam War.

Although Congress passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991, it still failed to help the majority of veterans who may qualify for health benefits. According to an investigation in 2015 by ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot, titled "Agent Orange Act was supposed to Help Vietnam Veterans – But Many Still Don’t Qualify," the act states, “Certain diseases tied to chemical exposure would be presumed to be related to a vet’s military service and would make the vet eligible for benefits. The list has grown over time and now includes various cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, peripheral neuropathy and heart disease, among others. However, to get these benefits, veterans must have actually set foot on Vietnamese soil or served on a craft in its rivers.”

About 2.6 men and women served in the US military in what was called the Vietnam Theater, yet only 650,000 veterans with illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure have received assistance from the VA, according to the article. Among the veterans whose claims have been rejected are Navy veterans who served offshore and veterans who served at US air bases in Thailand.

To complicate matters, the Department of Veterans Affairs has not been open to expanding its coverage of benefits to veterans exposed to Agent Orange who did not set foot on Vietnamese soils. It took four years for United States Senators Richard Burr and Jeff Merkley to push the VA to provide benefits for Air Force personnel who served stateside but came in contact with Agent Orange while aboard C-123 aircraft used to spray the substance. In fact, this expansion of benefits to the Air Force and Air Force reserve occurred months after the National Institute of Medicine published a report stating that there was a non-trivial increase in a veteran’s risk of experiencing negative health outcomes.

This led Senator Burr to say, "The effort of these veterans to secure overdue VA care and benefits for harmful exposure to Agent Orange has not been one of the agency's finest hours. This frustrating, four year process has laid bare the lengths that the VA will go to disregard science and the facts of the historical record. I am pleased that VA Secretary McDonald has chosen to finally do the right thing for these ailing veterans, but it shouldn't have been this hard or taken so long."

The VA has also made it difficult for Blue Water Veterans who may have been exposed to drinking water contaminated with Agent Orange while aboard ships stationed just off the Vietnamese coast to receive benefits. In fact, an excerpt from the Virginian-Pilot and ProPublica article states, “In 2002, a VA report found there was insufficient evidence to connect health problems of blue water sailors with chemical exposure aboard ships, establishing the basis for denying benefits to vets who didn't set foot in Vietnam. That decision was upheld by a federal appeals court in 2008. However, a 2011 report by the National Institute of Medicine identified several "plausible routes" for Agent Orange exposure through the water distillation process aboard Navy ships, as well as through the air.” This caused the U.S. Veterans Court of Appeals to rule in favor of the veterans.

Aside from those who fought in Vietnam, veterans stationed at bases in Thailand from April 1968-August 1971 are still struggling to secure benefits from the VA. In fact, many of these veterans may have been exposed to Agent Orange that was sprayed around military establishments. These veterans are having a difficult time trying to obtain the required documentation that proves that they were sent to work in areas where the toxic substance was sprayed.

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