Friday, March 20, 2015

FRA Testimony for March 18, 2915

Agent Orange Reform From 1964-1975 more than 500,000 service members were deployed off the coast of Vietnam, and many may have been exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide used in Vietnam. Past VA policy (1991-2001) allowed service members to file claims if they received the Vietnam Service Medal or Vietnam Campaign Medal. But VA implemented a “boots on the ground” limitation on obtaining an Agent Orange presumption connection. FRA is concerned about the recently released (December 2013) report from the National Academy of Sciences on the health effects from exposure to herbicides used during military operations in Vietnam. The study is mandated by the Agent Orange Act of 1991 (P.L. 102-4) and the Veterans Education and Benefits Expansion Act of 2001 (P. L. 107-103). This provision in the public law sunsets September 30, 2015 and should be extended. The study provides limited or suggestive evidence that some Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange herbicide have a higher incidence of stroke after age 70. The study also notes that the possibility of adverse health effects in offspring of Vietnam veterans is a high priority with veterans, but is a very elusive outcome to establish or refute. The Association appreciates the establishment of a presumptive service-connection for Vietnam veterans who have B cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease or ischemic heart disease. These diseases are related to exposure to Agent Orange. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s decision is a major step in the right direction, but FRA is advocating for a broader Agent Orange serviceconnection. However, a January 2013 VA statement referencing a careful review of another IOM report in 2011, entitled, “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans and Agent Orange Exposure,” indicates that there is insufficient evidence to establish a presumption of exposure to herbicides for Vietnam veterans who served off the Vietnam coast during the conflict. FRA believes that decision maintains the status quo regarding disability claims of these so-called “Blue Water” veterans and that the IOM report validated the 2002 Royal Australian Navy study that confirmed the desalinization process used on Australian and U.S. Navy ships actually magnified the dioxin exposure. The Association continues to seek a legislative remedy to reverse current policy so Blue Water veterans and military retirees who have health problems commonly associated with herbicide exposure will be eligible for service-related VA medical and disability benefits. The Association notes the VA’s efforts to expand presumption to ships exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam era. In January 2012, the VA added 47 ships to its list of Navy and Coast Guard vessels that may have been exposed to the Agent Orange herbicide. The list expanded as VA staff determined that a ship anchored, operated close to shore or traveled on the inland waterways and was exposed to the toxic herbicide. While the expanded VA policy to include veterans who sailed on “inland waterway” ships is significant, FRA believes it does not go far enough. The Association has received hundreds of calls from “blue water sailors” and their surviving spouses, stating that due to service on “their ships” in Vietnam waters (Tonkin Gulf), they too suffer or have died from many of the illnesses associated to presumed exposure to herbicides as their “brown water” and “boots on the ground” counterparts. The Association wishes to thank Representative Chris Gibson (N.Y.) and Senator Kristin Gillibrand (N.Y.) for introducing the “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act” (H.R. 969/ S. 961) FRA looks forward to hearings on this priority issue of the Association.

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