Coburn Amendment would strip Agent Orange presumptions
Vietnam veterans, through lawsuits brought by The American Legion and other groups in 1990, finally earned the right to service connection presumptively for those conditions rigorous scientific studies confirmed were associated with exposure to the toxic defoliant. The Agent Orange Act of 1991 set the standard for determining those presumptive disabilities, a standard which has served as a benchmark for the last twenty years. VA utilized this standard, after close and careful deliberation, to add certain conditions to the list of presumptive disabilities. Now, with a broad, sweeping, cost cutting measure, Senator Coburn from Oklahoma would upset the scientific standard of the last two decades and replace it with a new and greatly more onerous standard, effectively closing the door on not just Vietnam veterans suffering from exposure to Agent Orange, but potentially generations of veterans suffering from exposures in the Gulf War, and from Burn Pits in the War on Terror.
Just last year, The American Legion praised the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for adding three new conditions to the list of disorders presumptively associated with exposure to Agent Orange. Then Commander Clarence Hill praised the decision last September at The American Legion Convention in Milwaukee, noting "VA is doing the right thing, and this is really going to be a great help to the many Vietnam veterans who've struggled for years to get recognition and treatment for these disorders..."
However, with an amendment proposed to a bill intended to provide funding for military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Senator Coburn means to upset the medical standards used to determine which conditions may be deemed associated with Agent Orange and thus compensated and treated by VA. Coburn's amendment would change the governments current responsibility to make a determination about presumptive service connection from "a positive association" to the far more onerous standard of "causal relationship'. Within medical research, this is a truly daunting standard indeed.
This has the potential to affect not only veterans of Vietnam stricken with Agent Orange related disorders, but veterans of other conflicts as well. Researchers studying Gulf War related illnesses still struggle to find any exact causes, but cannot argue about the presence of symptoms and suffering. Indeed with much medical research, while exact causes may prove baffling, associations between exposures and disorders however are readily recognized and are the medical standard.
The system already in place is based upon rigorous and sound science, and careful deliberation by unimpeachable sources such as the Institute for Medicine. VA itself only makes their determination after close and careful review of the analysis provided by top scientific minds at IOM.
After years of obfuscation, denial and delays, to shift the government back onto footing to deny benefits to those suffering the effects of Agent Orange is unconscionable.
As VA faces challenging backlogs and caseloads over one million claims a year, presumptive disability decisions such as those utilized in the majority of Agent Orange related disability cases save the government not only time, but money. The system as it stands is in a position to alleviate needless man hours tracking down exact exposure amounts and disease vectors. When VA determines, after consulting with the strict scientific review provided by IOM that there is a positive association, they can dispense with unnecessary medical opinions which previously required hundreds of thousands of man hours by VA physicians.
No matter how you look at it, this is a step back for Vietnam veterans to pre-1991 standards and The American Legion is not going to take this sitting down. We led the fight before and we will always lead the fight to make sure the government does not forget its responsibilities to those who have served.
Coburn’s amendment to the MILCON bill comes on the heels of his proposed “Back in Black” plan to reduce the deficit. The plan calls for increased medical fees for Priority Group 7 and 8 veterans in the VA Health Care system, with new fees of $250 a year as well as more than doubling the co-payments for prescriptions. Other concerns in the plan include removing TRICARE Prime eligibility from certain retired military members and forcing them into plans with higher fees or driving them to seek insurance through other employers.
These veterans have more than paid for these benefits with their loyal service. President Washington once noted "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation."
The erosion of benefits and attempts to balance the budget directly on the backs of those who serve now and have served before will have a definite and detrimental effect on the willingness of future generations to make those sacrifices.