WASHINGTON — Three Democratic senators are holding up a confirmation vote on President Barack Obama's nominee for Veterans Affairs' top health post, citing the department's delay in extending disability benefits to Air Force reservists possibly exposed to Agent Orange.
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Oregon's two senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, said Thursday they will block a vote on Dr. David Shulkin's nomination in the full Senate until the Department of Veterans Affairs provides a fuller update on its efforts to help roughly 1,500 to 2,100 reservists who served from 1972 to 1982 at military bases in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
The senators had requested such feedback in a letter to the VA in April, with no adequate response to date, they said.
Any senator can anonymously place a hold on a nominee for any reason, preventing a vote.
"These veterans have waited too long to receive the health care and disability benefits they deserve," Brown told The Associated Press. "Dr. Shulkin is extremely qualified, but we can't move forward to confirm an undersecretary for health at the VA until this pressing veterans' health issue is addressed."
Responding in a statement, the VA said it continues to examine policy issues and work with Congress so the reservists might receive benefits. It did not indicate a time frame for a decision.
The department has been mulling a plan to grant a presumption of Agent Orange exposure to reservists who flew or worked on C-123 aircraft, many of which contained residue from the herbicide in the years after the Vietnam War. Such a move would give them easier access to disability benefits.
Since at least 2012, the VA has denied that the reservists could have been exposed to dioxin from dried Agent Orange, but it agreed to reexamine the issue of coverage after an Institute of Medicine report in January concluded many reservists were exposed and suffered higher health risks.
If confirmed, Shulkin, president of the Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey, would fill a key VA undersecretary position, managing a healthcare system responsible for 9 million military veterans in more than 1,700 facilities. His task would include working to improve wait times for medical care following last year's scandal involving long waits at the Phoenix VA medical center.
Dr. Carolyn Clancy, who had been appointed an assistant deputy undersecretary, has been serving as interim undersecretary for health. The previous undersecretary, Dr. Robert Petzel, stepped down in May 2014 in the wake of the Phoenix scandal.
Shulkin's nomination is awaiting final confirmation after a Senate panel approved it Tuesday by voice vote.