Much help has been provided by the Veterans Administration over the last three decades. Such help is needed now more than ever.

The largest integrated medical provider in the country, providing care that is well-regarded and inexpensive, the VA currently faces an overwhelming caseload, including a skyrocketing number of Agent Orange applicants.  It has been a perfect storm, what with an aging cohort of exposed veterans now coming down with Agent Orange-related diseases, scientific progress in identifying more and more conditions as Agent Orange-related, and a faltering economy, depriving many of a private insurance alternative.
 


Beginnings

A documentary aired in March 1978 by the CPS affiliate in Chicago, “Agent Orange:  Vietnam’s Deadly Fog,” raised concerns at the VA, though in particular as to how to respond to the health complaints of the veterans without supporting their case that their illnesses were related to Agent Orange exposure. The VA developed an Agent Orange Policy Group headed by a former researcher at Monsanto, and consulted with other industry researchers to determine if there are long-term effects to exposure to Agent Orange.  Though the EPA continued to state that scientific research has found dioxin to be a health hazard, the VA held to the conviction that Agent Orange/dioxin had only short term and reversible affects to human health.

“To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

– Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865.

At the same time that a veteran’s lawsuit was under way, efforts were being made to get Congress to act on Vietnam veterans concerns, including PTSD, the GI Bill, and Agent Orange.  Veterans began to mobilize; among the groups formed was the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) founded in 1978. The House held a hearing on Agent Orange in the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce in June 1979, inviting among the witnesses Bobby Muller and Michael Ryan, whose daughter Kerry was born with severe birth defects Mr. Kerry believed was related to his exposure to Agent Orange.  Numerous hearings on Agent Orange impacts have been held in both the House and Senate since.

As result of increased published pressure, Congress passed Public Law 96-151 in December 1979; it directed the VA to conduct 'epidemiological study of the long–term health effects on individuals from exposure to dioxins (including “Agent Orange”) used during the Vietnam conflict.'   Congress allocated funding for the CDC to conduct epidemiological studies on the health risks of veterans exposed to Agent Orange, and again in 1988, to fund the Air Force’s Ranch Hand Study.  As for health care, Congress passed Public Law 97-72 in 1981 directing the VA to provide medical treatment to veterans claiming exposure to Agent Orange, without needed to prove causation, as long as there is no other identifiable cause of the condition.  The Law also expanded the scope of the epidemiological study to include other environmental factors of service in Vietnam referred to as the “Vietnam Experience Study.” Subsequent laws passed extended the health care program up until 1993. In 1996, Public Law 99-272 was passed, directing the VA to study the long-term impacts of Agent Orange on the health of female veterans.

In regards to compensation, incremental progress was made between 1984 and 1991 to get the VA to support the veterans’ claims.  In 1984, Public Law 98-542 was enacted, which granted disability benefits to veterans who contracted chloracne and porphyria cutanea tarda as long as they presented themselves within one year after their service in Vietnam. Public Law 102-4 or the “Agent Orange Act” established presumptive service connection for conditions resulting from exposure to herbicides used in Vietnam, meaning that as long as the condition was on the list of conditions associated with the herbicides, the veterans did not have to prove they were exposed -- just prove that they were in Vietnam during the years of spraying. Enacted in 1991, the “Agent Orange Act” added non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and soft tissue sarcoma (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi's sarcoma, or mesothelioma) to the list of diseases the VA must compensate. It also transferred the responsibility of reviewing the research on Agent Orange from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the National Academy of Science, a role that the NAS continues to this day. NAS publishes biannual reports called “Veterans and Agent Orange” and makes recommendations for the VA to compensate veterans for conditions that are found to associated with exposure to Agent Orange or the other herbicides used in Vietnam.  

Since 1991, the VA has added eleven other conditions to the list of those eligible for compensation by the VA, including Respiratory Cancers (Lung, Bronchus, Larynx and Trachea) and Multiple Myeloma, in 1993; Hodgkin’s Disease, in 1994; Prostate Cancer and Acute and Subacute Peripheral Neuropathy, in 1996; Diabetes Millitus (type 2), in 2001; Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, in 2003; and, most recently, AL Amyloidosis, Parkinson’s Disease, Ischemic Heart Disease and B Cell Leukemia, in 2009.

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