More than 150,000 Vietnam War veterans may apply for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs in the next 18 months thanks to new regulations making it easier to compensate for health problems caused by exposure to the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange.
The changes could result in payouts of about $42 billion in the next decade. But they could still face resistance from lawmakers concerned about the VA paying out claims for ailments that are common in elderly Americans anyway, despite military service.
Under the new regulations set for publication in Tuesday's Federal Register, VA will presume that veterans who served in Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975 were exposed to Agent Orange and will add three medical conditions -- hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease -- to its list of disabilities presumed to have a connection to exposure to the herbicide.
VA also plans to review about 90,000 previously denied claims from veterans who sought benefits for Agent Orange-related health problems.
The changes could result in about $13 billion in benefits payments in the next year, VA Acting Undersecretary for Benefits Michael Walcoff said Saturday.
“The fact is we’re obeying the law," Walcoff told attendees. "The law says that anybody who was in country is entitled to the presumptions. Besides that, I believe that what we’re doing is the right thing to do. It’s what [VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki] wants to do.”
Rick Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, also defended the high costs, saying they should be considered in the same context of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Congress included $13.4 billion for Agent Orange-related benefits in this year's $58 billion supplemental spending bill, but Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam veteran, has said that adding ischemic heart disease to VA's list of approved diseases could result in the department paying veterans for a disease they might have contracted anyway as they aged.
Webb sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on the new regulations on Sept. 23.