Will Vietnam Vets with Serious Illnesses Get Presumptive Benefit Status in the Defense Budget Bill?

VietnamIf passed into law, the requirement would have the VA start granting fast-track disability status for roughly 34,000 veterans suffering from the three conditions. It would also be a major victory for veterans’ advocates, who have pushed for the change for many years.

Military Times’ recent article titled “Vietnam veterans with bladder cancer, other serious illnesses would get presumptive benefit status in final defense budget bill” reports that the policy bill still faces a veto threat from President Trump on some unrelated issues.

VA officials have resisted the action to grant presumptive benefits status in recent years, while they conduct additional scientific research into the connection between the illnesses and exposure to chemical defoliants during the Vietnam War. Internal documents also show disagreements within the Trump administration over adding new Agent Orange-connected diseases.

Earlier research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine linked the medical problems to Agent Orange exposure. However, the Office of Management and Budget officials have questioned the validity of those findings in light of the potential expense of new disability payouts.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said the new veterans’ benefit was a win on “an extremely important issue.”

“The VA, I think, has been unfairly treating this issue for years and denying people coverage that they ought to have, saying things that can clearly be linked to Agent Orange exposure were not,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

“This will give people the coverage that they deserve, for what happened with Agent Orange exposure, and I think that’s huge.”

The issue of presumptive benefits status has been controversial in the veteran community for a long time. In most instances, veterans must prove (usually with a medical exams and service records) that their injuries and illnesses are associated with their service to receive disability benefits. However, in conflicts like Vietnam, where the chemical defoliant Agent Orange was used across the country with little clear record of when U.S. troops were exposed, the federal government has made exceptions to the standards of proof.

Now, those vets who served in the country and later suffered a series of 14 illnesses known to be connected to the chemical exposure receive presumptive exposure status and need not provide additional documentation to apply for benefits.

The new legislation will help roughly 34,000 vets who aren’t currently receiving full disability payouts. That will cost about $8 billion over the next 10 years.

President Trump has threatened to veto the bill because of provisions to rename bases honoring Confederate leaders, calling it an attack on U.S. military history. Nonetheless, lawmakers included the provision in their final draft. He also insisted on language in the authorization bill repealing legal protections for social media companies, since their conduct has become a national security issue. However, legislators rejected that notion. They said it was not relevant to the military budget measure and because it was not included in the separate drafts adopted in the House and Senate earlier this year.

Reference: Military Times (Dec. 2, 2020) “Vietnam veterans with bladder cancer, other serious illnesses would get presumptive benefit status in final defense budget bill”

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