Agent Orange aid hits possible roadblock

By Tom Philpott

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), chief architect of the pricey post-9/11 GI Bill education benefit for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war era, could become a new champion, for taxpayers, against what he perceives as excess spending on military pay and on a new wave of Agent Orange claims.

Webb, a former Navy secretary and decorated Vietnam War veteran, risked the anger of thousands of veterans from that war when he won Senate approval last week of an amendment to block, at least temporarily, the Department of Veterans Affairs from paying new disability claims on three prominent diseases presumed linked to wartime herbicide exposure.

As many as 86,000 Vietnam veterans with ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease or B-cell leukemia are awaiting a final VA regulation to receive disability compensation based on a decision last fall by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki of evidence linking these diseases with exposure to deadly defoliant used during the war. Many more vets could file first-time claims.

VA officials not only have published interim regulations already but, for months, have been encouraging veterans stricken with these diseases, or their surviving spouses, to file new claims or re-file claims as soon as possible because benefits would be paid back to claim filing dates.

But Webb proposed, and senators accepted May 27, an amendment to the fiscal 2010 war supplemental funding bill (HR 4899) to limit spending on claims filed for these new presumptive Agent Orange diseases for 60 days.

That will allow Congress time to study the VA decision and examine more closely the link found between these diseases and herbicide exposure.

Immediately after the vote, Webb began a trip to Asia and could not be reached for comment. He told Congressional Quarterly, however, that he wants Shinseki to explain his reasons for expanding last October the list of presumptive diseases tied to Agent Orange. Congress, he said, needs to hold VA to “an accountable standard” for such claims.

The VA draft regulation, published in March, projected costs for Agent Orange claims will jump by $13.6 billion in a year and by $42.2 billion over 10 years. By comparison, the projected 10-year cost of new Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits that Webb pushed into law is $52 billion.

What worries Webb, said one Capitol Hill source, is that, based on modest scientific evidence, VA could be paying claims on diseases that a large proportion of any population will contract through normal aging.

Webb noted last week that a decision in 2001 making Type 2 diabetes a presumptive disease of Agent Orange exposure now allows 263,000 veterans to draw disability compensation. He said projected estimates of heart disease alone among Vietnam veterans are much higher.

Webb’s amendment language, if agreed to by the House, would invoke the Congressional Review Act, which allows a funding freeze on any major government regulation or initiative so Congress can review the proposed changes. If in 60 days opposition strengthens and a majority of lawmakers will risk the wrath of expectant veterans with these ailments, Congress could pass a joint resolution to prevent a final regulation from taking effect.