Agent Orange: With more diseases tied to use during Vietnam War, bill for veterans' care skyrocketsOver the past two years, federal officials say, an estimated 10,000 more veterans have sought medical compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange, an herbicide that contains a toxic chemical called dioxin.
By: Lindsey Bever, Dallas Morning News / MCT
More than 40 years after the U.S. military used Agent Orange to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam, the health-care bill is escalating.
Over the past two years, federal officials say, an estimated 10,000 more veterans have sought medical compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange, an herbicide that contains a toxic chemical called dioxin.
The Institute of Medicine said in a recent report that there is sufficient evidence of an association between exposure to Agent Orange and illnesses including soft-tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Hodgkin lymphoma and chloracne.
The report recommended further research to determine whether there could be a link between Agent Orange exposure and other illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, tonsil cancer, melanoma and Alzheimer’s disease.
Over the next decade, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to pay $50 billion for health-care compensation for ischemic heart disease alone — one of the 14 diseases the VA says is associated with Agent Orange exposure.
Last year, ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and B-cell leukemia were added to the list of diseases the VA associates with Agent Orange exposure. That added $236 million in 2010 and $165 million this year in compensation costs, according to a VA report.
In addition, today’s soldiers could be subject to longer delays for disability-compensation claims from the VA because of veterans from previous generations, said Ryan Edwards, a Queens College economist who has studied the life cycles of veterans’ costs.
“We’re probably not going to see the peak in demand for service needs for another 30 years,” Edwards said. “We have not begun to see the end yet.”
Providing compensation for veterans’ health care is not an economic issue, said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, who has been on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs for 15 years.
“It’s not a question of being able to afford it; it’s an obligation to our veterans, those who put their lives on the line, those who were told it was safe,” said Reyes, who was a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam. “We flew our helicopters through clouds of Agent Orange when it was being applied.”
Still, some prominent political leaders argue that many veterans could have developed these diseases regardless of whether they were exposed to Agent Orange. Those leaders are asking how the VA will afford the compensation claims without breaking the nation’s budget.
“You’re going to find out,” said Alan Simpson, former chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “These unbelievable compensation systems will fail. There’s no way they can be sustained.”
Retired Army Capt. Allen Clark of Dallas said he served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967 and was exposed to Agent Orange. A year ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, though he said he has no way of knowing whether his condition is related to his exposure. And he did not file a claim, because he already has 100 percent disability compensation after losing both legs in a mortar attack.
Proven link or not, he said, “We’re the ones that went off to an unpopular war. … We have earned those benefits by our service to our country under very trying circumstances.”
Other proponents of providing health-care compensation in these Agent Orange cases argue that scientific research can rarely provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“We always tend to think of science as cut and dried, yes and no, black and white — and there’s a heck of a lot of gray in there,” said Dr. Terry Walters, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ deputy chief consultant for post-deployment health. “That’s why you need experts to evaluate it.”
Usually, to file a claim for compensation, a veteran must show that he has the disease, that he was exposed to Agent Orange and that there is a connection to the disease. But a presumptive link takes the burden of proof off of the veterans, Walters said.
Luther Newberry, 64, a retired Marine Corps E4 corporal who served in Vietnam, said that his ischemic heart disease, diabetes and neuropathy are a direct result of his exposure to Agent Orange.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind,” said Newberry, of Fritch, Texas, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Texas State Council. “Vietnam veterans my age, we’re probably dying at a faster rate than the Korean (or) World War II veterans are right now.”
If these veterans had been aware of the risks of Agent Orange exposure, many of them could have gotten the care they needed earlier — before it was too late, advocates said.
“If our guys had known that we’re more than twice as likely, almost three times as likely, to get prostate cancer, more than twice as likely to get diabetes, more than twice as likely to get sarcoma or renal cancer, people would have been on the lookout for these (health) risks that accrued to veterans who served in the Vietnam theater,” said Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at the Vietnam Veterans of America.
Disability compensation for Agent Orange-related illnesses is going to be expensive, but it’s an expense that the VA is willing to accept, Walters said.
“It’s a lot of money, a huge amount of money,” Walters said. “But the (secretary of veterans affairs) doesn’t make the decisions based on money; we try to make the decisions based on science. But the science is very fuzzy. It’s very emotional and it’s political. It’s difficult.”
David Tarrant contributed to this report.
Distributed by MCT Information Services