Vietnam veterans suffering from several diseases that a scientific panel says are related to Agent Orange exposure won a hard-earned victory in Congress this week, with language included in the final defense policy bill that would grant them disability benefits.
If signed into law, the measure would give roughly 34,000 veterans diagnosed with hypothyroidism, bladder cancer or Parkinsonism access to disability compensation and health care services.
Not included in the bill is hypertension, a condition that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine linked to Agent Orange in 2018. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is common among the elderly and, if included, would have added more than 160,000 veterans to VA disability rolls in the next 10 years at an estimated cost of $11.2 billion to $15.2 billion.
For veterans who have worked since 2016 to add the three conditions to the Agent Orange presumptive conditions list, inclusion in the National Defense Authorization Act is a “monumental win,” according to a lawmaker who worked on the language, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
"This is a monumental win for more than 34,000 Vietnam veterans who have been subjected to countless delays while living with debilitating illnesses associated with their exposure to Agent Orange," Tester said in a release. "Inclusion of my amendment in the annual defense package sends a clear message to Vietnam veterans that their service is not forgotten."
Tester and House Democrats said earlier this year that they planned to continue fighting to include hypertension on the list of conditions linked to herbicides used during the Vietnam era -- but struck a compromise to ensure that the other diseases were included in legislation.
In 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine deemed the three conditions to be associated with exposure to defoliants.
The Department of Veterans Affairs had considered adding the three conditions in 2017, but the proposal by then-VA Secretary David Shulkin was shot down by the Office of Management and Budget and other White House officials who demanded more research before making a final decision.
The results of two studies VA claims are integral to that decision -- the Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study, or VE-HEROES, and the Vietnam Era Mortality Study -- have been delayed until next year.
In the end, Congress decided to make the decision for VA.
"I'm proud that Congress could come together to deliver on our sacred promise to these men and women, and I couldn't be more honored to have led this fight on their behalf," Tester said.
Although the new conditions are included in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act, the deal is not yet sealed: the bill faces a veto threat from President Donald Trump on other issues.
Trump has objected to any bill that includes measures to rename military installations that honor Confederate officers. That provision is included in the final bill, according to a report from Military Times.
Trump also said this week that he wants the bill to include a section that would repeal a portion of the Communications Act that extends legal protections for social media companies.
Trump has said the protections are a "serious threat to national security and election integrity" and therefore should be included in the defense policy bill.
Lawmakers balked at the idea though, and no repeal is included in the bill, according to Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The final version of the defense bill is expected to be released in the coming days and Congress hopes to vote on it next week.