Agent Orange-related health care for Vietnam vets should be expanded, VA boss Shulkin says

More Vietnam War veterans who developed ailments after exposure to Agent Orange deserve health care, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin told a Senate panel this week -- but high costs, medical science and politics stand in the way.  

Shulkin told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that last year he suggested to White House budget officials that they add bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, Parkinson-like tremors and high blood pressure to a list of 14 illnesses presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the war, the Tuscaloosa News reported.

“I have transmitted my recommendations to the (White House’s) Office of Management and Budget. I did that by Nov. 1st,” Shulkin said. “And we are in the process right now of going through this data. In fact, we met with (OMB officials) on Monday. They asked for some additional data to be able to work through the process and be able to get financial estimates for this. So, we are committed to working with OMB to get this resolved in the very near future.”

The government previously expanded coverage in June 2015 for Vietnam War vets affected by Agent Orange, which accounts for one out of six disability checks issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, left, speaks with Chief Financial Officer of the Department of Veterans Affairs Jon Rychalski during a hearing on FY2019 and FY2020 budgets for veterans programs, before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 21, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, left, speaks with Chief Financial Officer of the Department of Veterans Affairs Jon Rychalski during a hearing on budgets for veterans programs, before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill.  (Associated Press)

At that time, the cost for covering Agent Orange-related ailments was projected to be $47.5 million over 10 years.

Shulkin also told the committee his position on Blue Water Navy veterans of the Vietnam War being ineligible for treatment, despite suffering an illness on the VA presumptive list.

“I am aligned with you that these veterans have waited too long,” Shulkin said, “and this is a responsibility that this country has. And, as our veterans get older, it’s unfair. ... I believe it is imperative upon us to resolve this issue.”

"I am aligned with you that these veterans have waited too long, and this is a responsibility that this country has. And, as our veterans get older, it’s unfair. ... I believe it is imperative upon us to resolve this issue."

- VA Secretary David Shulkin

Previous efforts to include Blue Water Navy Veterans on the VA presumptive list have failed to materialize. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 299) was introduced last year by Rep. David Valado, R-Ga. Despite 327 co-sponsors, the bill has yet to pass.

Shulkin has been under scrutiny in recent weeks, leading to speculation that President Donald Trump might replace him with Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Last month, Shulkin was found by the Department of Veterans Affairs to have misused finances for a trip to Europe, and inappropriately accepted tickets to tennis matches at Wimbledon.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.