Vietnam War veterans exposed to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange and suffering with serious and potentially life-threatening medical conditions will soon be able to access increased health care and benefits, Sen. Chuck Schumer said Thursday.
The final version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, in both the House and Senate, will expand the list of diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure to include bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism, Schumer told Newsday exclusively.
The bills, which would authorize up to $8 billion in new benefits, are scheduled for a vote next week, Schumer said, and are expected to pass with veto-proof majorities.
For years, federal agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget, have resisted adding more ailments to the list of 14 illnesses associated with Agent Orange, even as studies have shown they are linked to Vietnam vets' exposure to the herbicide.
"This is really vital to our vets who need the health care," Schumer said in an interview. "It's also vital to show we stand by them and we are not going to let some bean counter at OMB put their health at risk."
There are about 240,000 Vietnam Veterans living in the state, including about 80,000 on Long Island and in New York City.
"This is very important for our members," said John Rowan, of Middle Village, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America. "We have been fighting for this for five years."
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 stipulates that the Department of Veterans Affairs automatically accept that any Vietnam veteran who served in-country between January 1962 and May 1975 was likely exposed to Agent Orange.
The act established a list of "presumed" diseases caused by Agent Orange exposure.
But despite medical reports linking Parkinsonism, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism to Agent Orange exposure, federal agencies have resisted adding the ailments to the list, forcing veterans to argue their claims in lengthy, and often unsuccessful, bureaucratic appeals, Schumer said.
Last year, Schumer secured a budget provision requiring OMB and the VA to issue a detailed report to Congress on the delay in adding the illnesses to the presumptive conditions list. But Schumer said the final report was insufficient and never explained the agency's resistance to including the ailments.
A VA spokesman declined to comment, citing policy provisions that have yet to be enacted into law.