November 11, 2020

On Veterans Day, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Pushes For Expanded Health Care For Vets Suffering From Agent Orange-Linked Illnesses In Final National Defense Bill

The Bipartisan Amendment Would Establish Presumption Of Service Connection For Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, And Parkinsonism For Veterans Exposed to Agent Orange; An Estimated 34,000 Veterans Suffer From These Conditions Due To Their Military Service, Yet The VA Continues To Deny Care And Benefits; Earlier This Year, Gillibrand Announced Legislation To Establish Presumption Of Service Connection For Veterans Exposed To Burn Pits And Other Toxins And Streamline The Process For Obtaining VA Ben

On Veterans Day, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged House and Senate Armed Services Committee leadership to include expanded health care and benefits for veterans suffering from Agent Orange-linked illnesses in the final Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). With the NDAA headed for consideration by the Senate and House in coming weeks, Gillibrand is pushing committee leadership to maintain the bipartisan amendment — which passed the Senate 94-6 — to establish a presumption of service-connection for Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism for veterans exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam.  

“More than thirty thousand service members are suffering from conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure, yet the VA continues to deny care by placing the burden of proof on veterans,” said Senator Gillibrand. “No veteran should have to fight the VA for care that is linked to their service while they are fighting for their life. That’s why I introduced legislation to guarantee care and benefits for those exposed to burn pits and that is why I will continue fighting with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for those exposed to Agent Orange. It’s time for Congress to pass this important provision and ensure veterans can access the medical care they need.”

“Justice is long overdue for our aging veterans currently dying from conditions resulting from their exposure to Agent Orange chemicals in Vietnam,” said Senator Jon Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Congress must acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence put forth by veterans, scientists and medical experts, and end the wait for more than 34,000 frustrated veterans living with and dying from these debilitating health conditions. Inclusion of my amendment in the Senate’s must-pass annual defense bill will send a clear message that we’re living up to the promises made to those who served by ensuring they get the care and benefits they’ve earned.” 

New York State is home to more than 240,000 Vietnam-era veterans. Thousands of these veterans have been diagnosed with Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism. While the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) has established a link between these conditions and exposure to Agent Orange, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has denied veterans desperately needed care and benefits for these conditions. Instead, veterans who become ill from Agent Orange-related conditions that aren't specifically listed on the presumptive conditions list are forced to prove their claim in a lengthy, bureaucratic appeals process that can last years. Often claims are denied and some veterans die before the process is even concluded. 

Diseases resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals and other toxins are a deadly cost of war. However, the VA has a history of denying many veteran’s access to benefits with the excuse that there isn’t enough science to prove their ailments are service-connected. Earlier this year, Senator Gillibrand, alongside Congressman Raul Ruiz, introduced the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020 to remove the “burden of proof” from the veteran to provide enough evidence to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure. The legislation would streamline the process for obtaining VA benefits for burn pit and other toxic exposures so that veterans can easily access the health care they need.  

Full text of the letter can be found here and below. 

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Dear Chairman Inhofe, Ranking Member Reed, Chairman Smith, and Ranking Member Thornberry:

We write to express our support for inclusion of Senate Amendment 1972 in the final conference agreement for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (NDAA). This critical provision would expand the Department of Veterans Affairs’ list of medical conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure to include Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism. Tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans suffer from these three conditions due to their military service, yet these veterans continue to be denied the care and benefits they have earned and desperately need.

This bipartisan amendment – which passed the Senate with 94 votes - provides a presumption of service-connection for Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism for veterans exposed to certain herbicide agents while serving in Vietnam. The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) reported on the link between these three conditions and exposure to Agent Orange in 2016, and NAM reports continue to be the standard for scientific evidence of association since the Agent Orange Act of 1991. Thirty veterans’ advocacy groups and organizations have already sent multiple letters of support to Congressional leadership on behalf of this amendment.

It is time for Congress to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence put forth by veterans, scientists and medical experts, and to end the wait for the more than 34,000 frustrated and desperate veterans living with and dying from these health conditions. Inclusion of this legislation in the conference agreement for the Fiscal Year 2021 NDAA would be consistent with science and historic precedent, and is simply the right thing to do for these veterans and their families.

Sincerely,