Several years after a scientific body recommended that the Department of Veterans Affairs consider adding four conditions -- bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, hypertension and Parkinson's-like symptoms -- to the list of qualifying diseases tied to Agent Orange, affected veterans may soon find out whether they are eligible for disability compensation and VA health care.
During a Senate Veterans Affairs hearing Tuesday on the VA budget, Dr. Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, said a decision on the three illnesses likely would come in the next 90 days.
Responding to a question from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Stone said the VA is working "through this right now, and it would be my hope" to have a decision within three months. He added that the recommendation will go to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie for final approval.
"It's took this country far too long to come to terms with Agent Orange," Brown said.
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In March 2016, the National Academy of Medicine found evidence that two conditions, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism, are likely linked to Agent Orange exposure and that a third condition, Parkinson-like symptoms, also should be included on the list of diseases presumed to be related to contact with the herbicide.
The announcement brought hope to thousands of veterans living with bladder cancer and thyroid problems, as well as those who have essential tremors and other symptoms similar to Parkinson's, but who haven't been diagnosed with the disease.
In late 2017, former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin said he had made a decision on whether to add the three conditions to the list of 14 Agent Orange-related illnesses, but it was never announced.
In November 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine also released a report finding sufficient evidence to link high blood pressure with exposure to Agent Orange.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, previously had been designated as having limited or suggestive evidence that it is related to contact with Agent Orange. A National Academies committee, having reviewed new studies, upgraded the association to say there is "sufficient" evidence that ties the disease to exposure.
But high blood pressure is so common among older Americans that it has never been added to the presumptive list, even though the suggested evidence shows it may be tied to exposure.
The U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of herbicides, including Agent Orange, in Vietnam to clear the jungle of foliage that obscured enemy movements.
More than 2.7 million veterans served in Vietnam. Veterans with health conditions connected to serving on the ground in Vietnam and inland waterways are eligible for health care and compensation from the VA.
A legal decision announced in January by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit may extend those benefits to sailors and Marines who have qualifying diseases and were assigned to ships offshore.
The VA announced Thursday it will not appeal the decision by a federal judge to award benefits to the veterans, known as the Blue Water Navy.
-- Editor's Note: This story has been updated to list the four conditions under consideration.
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