WASHINGTON, Aug. 30 (UPI) — An expansion of the list of disabilities linked to Agent Orange exposure among U.S. Vietnam veterans is creating controversy, observers say.
Ischemic heart disease and Parkinson’s have joined other diseases common in men in their 60s — prostate cancer, diabetes and heart disease — on the list of the allegedly herbicide-caused ailments qualifying for disability benefits and will add at least $42 billion to government benefit costs in the next 10 years, Politico reported Monday.
The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates 349,000 people are receiving Agent Orange disability benefits, a figure that could soon reach 500,000, or one out of every four surviving Vietnam veterans by the VA’s count.
There is continuing debate about the science involved and the government’s responsibility, veterans on both sides of the argument say.
“It is what it is. The anecdotal evidence of Vietnam veterans dying and getting diseases earlier is enormous,” said Richard Weidman, an Army medic in the war and now legislative director for Vietnam Veterans of America. “I know five people in the VVA leadership alone who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. In no other side of my life have I seen anything like that.”
But for many who served in Vietnam, a 1-to-4 ratio of disabilities for Agent Orange seems unlikely, especially when the top conditions are heart disease and diabetes, two illnesses linked to age, diet and lifestyle.
“Heart disease is a common phenomenon regardless of potential exposure to Agent Orange,” Sen.Jim Webb, D-Va., a decorated Marine infantry officer in the war, said in a June letter challenging the VA’s expansion of qualifying disabilities.
With his urging, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing Sept. 23 on the new regulations, set to take effect in December.
“I just want to understand the logic of how they decided this latest service connection,” Webb said. “This is a helluva awkward position to be in where I’ve been an advocate all my adult life on veterans’ benefits. I just want to know how they got to this point.”
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