VA compensation for Agent Orange diseases gets Congressional hearing

By Tom Philpott, syndicated columnist

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki will get the Senate hearing he didn’t want.

Sen. James Webb, D-Va., says he will use a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing — rescheduled now for Sept. 23 — to have Shinseki explain his decision to compensate Vietnam veterans, and many surviving spouses, for three more ailments including heart disease.

Shinseki announced last October that ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and B-Cell leukemia will be added to the list of illnesses presumed caused by exposure to defoliants, including Agent Orange, used to clear jungle in combat areas during the war.

VA projects that the decision will cost $13.4 billion in 2010 alone as it will qualify a few hundred thousand more veterans for service-connected disability compensation.

Those veterans, it now appears, will have to wait at least a few more months before claims can be paid. And there is at least some doubt now they will be paid. That will depend on whether Webb and enough of his colleagues are dissatisfied with the science behind Shinseki’s decision.

In an interview in his Capitol Hill office Wednesday, Webb said he was surprised to find among line items in an emergency wartime supplemental bill (HR 4899) a few weeks ago $13.4 billion attributed to “veterans.” He asked staff to find out what it would pay for.

“It came back this was the Agent Orange law,” Webb said. Webb, a highly decorated Marine from combat service in Vietnam, said this deepened his skepticism over the soundness of that law and how it has been used.

“When the law was passed there were two areas that raised questions for me,” Webb explained. “One was the presumption of exposure for anyone who had been in Vietnam; 2.7 million people had an automatic presumption of exposure. And then the notion that the VA administrator, now the secretary of veterans’ affairs, has discretion based on scientific evidence to decide a service-connection” to various illnesses. “It’s very broad.”

Webb amended HR 4899 so claims can’t be paid on the three newly named Agent Orange illnesses until 60 days after a final rule is published.

“This is an area where we have a responsibility to pump for more (information) to tell us specifically how they made the connection. The only appropriate way to do that is say, ‘Let’s fence the money for 60 days and get some clarification here.’”

Webb said he was unaware on finding the $13.4 billion in the bill that Shinseki had asked Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the VA committee, not to hold a hearing on this issue. Akaka had scheduled one for April, then rescheduled for early May when VA declined to send witnesses.

One theme he ran on in 2006, Webb said, was restoring a proper balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. Too much authority had been conceded to, or usurped by, recent administrations, he said.

Webb said he even fired off a letter to President Barack Obama last December challenging a claim he made as he prepared for a summit on climate change that he would return from Copenhagen with a binding agreement.

“I just felt compelled to say, ‘You do not have the constitutional authority to bind the United States to an international agreement. The Congress does.” Webb said.

Shinseki’s decision on Agent Orange strikes Webb as more proof too much power has been conceded to the executive branch.

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