Shinseki: Evidence Led to New Agent Orange Presumptions

WASHINGTON — Vet­er­ans Affairs Sec­re­tary Eric K. Shin­se­ki today defend­ed his deci­sion to add heart dis­ease, Parkinson’s dis­ease, and leukemia to the con­di­tions VA offi­cials can pre­sume in Viet­nam War vet­er­ans to be caused by Agent Orange expo­sure.

Speak­ing before the Sen­ate Com­mit­tee on Vet­er­ans’ Affairs, Shin­se­ki said he made the recent deci­sion based on the find­ings of the Nation­al Academy’s Insti­tute of Med­i­cine and numer­ous med­ical, legal, and pro­gram experts’ opinions. 

U.S. forces used the chem­i­cal her­bi­cide Agent Orange dur­ing the Viet­nam War to deny ene­my fight­ers cov­er by defo­li­at­ing forest­ed areas. 

“My deter­mi­na­tion that there is a pos­i­tive asso­ci­a­tion between her­bi­cide expo­sure and ischemic heart dis­ease was based sole­ly upon eval­u­a­tion of the sci­en­tif­ic and med­ical evi­dence and appli­ca­tion of the statu­to­ry stan­dard pre­scribed by the Agent Orange Act,” Shin­se­ki said. 

The institute’s most recent report, issued in July 2009, found suf­fi­cient evi­dence of a pos­i­tive asso­ci­a­tion between expo­sure to the Agent Orange her­bi­cide and B‑cell leukemia – the most com­mon can­cer of white blood cells – as well as Parkinson’s dis­ease, heart dis­ease, and hyper­ten­sion. The evi­dence of a causal link to hyper­ten­sion was less com­pelling, Shin­se­ki said, so he did not include it in his deter­mi­na­tion of VA “pre­sump­tions.”

The sec­re­tary said his deci­sion is in accor­dance with the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which directs VA to estab­lish pre­sump­tions of ser­vice con­nec­tion for any dis­ease dis­cussed in the Insti­tute of Medicine’s bien­ni­al reports to VA for which the evi­dence shows a pos­i­tive association. 

Shin­se­ki not­ed that Con­gress mem­bers have object­ed to the new pre­sump­tions based on the com­mon­al­i­ty of the three dis­eases, the numer­ous oth­er fac­tors that can lead to them, and the poten­tial expense of extend­ing ben­e­fits pay­ments to Viet­nam vet­er­ans with those diag­noses. But, Shin­se­ki said, the law does not allow him to con­sid­er the eco­nom­ic impact of a pre­sump­tion, or exclude a dis­ease based on how com­mon it is. “Those fac­tors did not enter into my deci­sion,” he said. 

The institute’s find­ings were con­trolled for oth­er risk fac­tors for the dis­eases, and the law allows the VA to chal­lenge pre­sump­tions in vet­er­ans for whom oth­er risk fac­tors exist, he said. 

“My deter­mi­na­tions were not made light­ly,” Shin­se­ki said. “They were made in accor­dance with the respon­si­bil­i­ties entrust­ed to me in the Agent Orange Act and my duty as Sec­re­tary of Vet­er­ans Affairs.” 

Shin­se­ki added that a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the costs asso­ci­at­ed with the new pre­sump­tions are the result of a 1985 class-action law­suit that allows for retroac­tive pay­ments for all pre­sump­tions made before 2015. 

“While there is always room to review deci­sions with respect to spe­cif­ic dis­eases, there is no ques­tion that the actions of Con­gress and VA relat­ed to the Agent Orange Act demon­strate the government’s com­mit­ment to pro­vide vet­er­ans with treat­ment and com­pen­sa­tion for the health effects of her­bi­cide expo­sure,” he said. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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