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Peters, Stabenow Urge Trump Administration to Lift Freeze on Benefits for Vietnam War Veterans Exposed to Agent Orange

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Gary Peters (MI) and Debbie Stabenow (MI) recently urged the Trump Administration to stop denying benefits to Vietnam War veterans suffering from illnesses connected to Agent Orange exposure. In a letter to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie, Peters, Stabenow and 41 of their colleagues demanded an explanation for why the VA is blocking benefits to Vietnam War veterans suffering from conditions such as bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s disease.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that the Administration has continued to willingly neglect the nearly 200,000 veterans across the country, including in Michigan, who are suffering from illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure,” said Senator Peters, a former Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Their inexplicable stonewalling has denied life-saving treatments and crucial benefits to these dedicated veterans and their loved ones. It’s past time for the White House to reverse this shameful policy.”

“America's veterans and their families have given selflessly for their country, and we have an obligation to provide them with the benefits they deserve,” said Senator Stabenow. “But this Administration has turned their backs on Michigan veterans who’ve developed illnesses because of toxic exposure to Agent Orange. We’ve known for a long time that Agent Orange causes serious health issues, but the Administration continues to deny scientific evidence. They must end the years-long delay to add bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, parkinsonism, and hypertension to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ list of service-connected presumptive conditions.”

Peters has led numerous efforts to support veterans who are suffering with illnesses related to toxic chemical exposure during their service. This past November, Peters pushed Secretary Wilkie to begin processing claims for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange while serving on Navy vessels off the coast of Vietnam. Peters also introduced a bipartisan bill requiring  servicemembers be assessed for exposure to toxic burn pits as part of their routine health exams, which has led to cancer, cardiovascular toxicity, reproductive issues and neurological damage for numerous Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans.

Text of the letter is copied below and available here:

Dear President Trump,

For far too long, your Administration has stonewalled extending critical benefits to gravely ill veterans whose service in Vietnam exposed them to Agent Orange. As a result, these veterans suffer from Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and Hypertension – health conditions that each meet the historical standard for being added to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) presumptive list for service-connection as it relates to Agent Orange exposure. Your Administration’s refusal to add these conditions to the presumptive list continues to deny more than 190,000 sick and aging veterans the health care and compensation they have earned and desperately need. More than fifty years after their service and sacrifice, these veterans continue to suffer the detrimental effects of their exposure each day. These heroes deserve more than inaction and indecision from their own government – they deserve justice.

Previous letters to your Administration on this specific topic have gone unanswered. To date, these veterans have yet to receive a justification for why the Administration has failed to act or an expected timeline for action. At best, the answers provided by Administration officials have been inconsistent. At worst, they have been misleading. It took a Freedom of Information Act request to confirm that the former VA Secretary David Shulkin pushed the White House to add new health conditions to the presumptive list, and that the proposal was blocked by the White House and the Office of Management and Budget due to costs. It is unfortunate that an Administration seemingly eager to send more servicemembers into combat, refuses to consider the consequences that extend beyond the battlefield. It is well past time for your Administration to acknowledge the considerable effects service has on one’s health, and accept that Agent Orange exposure is most certainly a cost of war.

Instead of justice, these Vietnam Veterans have been subject to additional and unwarranted delays and calls for further evaluation of scientific research that has already been reviewed by the National Academies of Medicine (NAM). In NAM’s March 10, 2016 report, Hypothyroidism and Bladder Cancer were found to have “limited or suggestive evidence of an association” to Agent Orange exposure. This same report expanded the definition of Parkinson’s disease, which was in the “limited or suggestive evidence of an association” category, to include Parkinson-like symptoms or Parkinsonism. Finally, NAM’s November 15, 2018 report showed “sufficient evidence of an association” for Hypertension to Agent Orange. “Limited or suggestive evidence of an association” has historically been sufficient for VA to grant presumptive authority for other conditions, and there has never been a condition in the “sufficient evidence of an association” category which was not included on VA’s presumptive list.

Unfortunately, your Administration recently squandered another opportunity to right a wrong and explain your plans to deliver care and benefits to Vietnam Veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Instead, in a report required by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations bill you signed in December, the VA questioned the value of the scientific evidence from the NAM. NAM’s reports have been the standard for scientific evidence of association for more than twenty years. But it is now clear that your Administration is intent on changing the rules at the eleventh hour and forcing veterans with Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism, and Hypertension to meet a different—perhaps unattainable— standard. That is unacceptable.

Mr. President, it is time to end the wait for the more than approximately 190,000 frustrated and desperate veterans who are currently living with and dying from these health conditions. It would be consistent with how previous Administrations have acted, and it is simply the right thing to do for them and their families.