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)