RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The system that automatically awards disability benefits to some veterans because of concerns about Agent Orange seems contrary to efforts to control federal spending, the Republican co-chairman of President Barack Obama's deficit commission said Tuesday.
Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson's comments came a day after The Associated Press reported that diabetes has become the most frequently compensated ailment among Vietnam veterans, even though decades of research has failed to find more than a possible link between the defoliant Agent Orange and diabetes.
"The irony (is) that the veterans who saved this country are now, in a way, not helping us to save the country in this fiscal mess," said Simpson, an Army veteran who was once chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has also allowed Vietnam veterans to get money for ailments such as lung cancer and prostate cancer, and the agency finalized a proposal Tuesday to grant payments for heart disease — the nation's leading cause of death.
Simpson declined to say whether the issue would become part of his work on Obama's panel examining the nation's debt. He looked to Congress to make a change.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat who currently chairs the VA committee, said Tuesday he will address the broader issue of so-called presumptive conditions at a hearing previously set for Sept. 23. The committee will look to "see what changes Congress and VA may need to make to existing law and policy," Akaka said in an e-mail.
"It is our solemn responsibility to help veterans with disabilities suffered in their service to our country," said Akaka, who served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. "That responsibility also requires us to make sure limited resources are available for those who truly need and are entitled to them."
Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat and Vietnam combat veteran, has also raised questions about the spending. The leading Republican on the committee, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, has not responded to several requests for comment on the topic in recent months.
Because of concerns about Agent Orange, Congress set up a system in 1991 to grant automatic benefits to veterans who served in Vietnam at any point during a 13-year period and later got an ailment linked to the defoliant. The VA has done that with a series of ailments with strong indications of an association to Agent Orange, including Hodgkin's disease, soft-tissue cancers and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Other ailments have been added even though and Institute of Medicine review has found they only have a potential association and that they could not rule out other factors. Those maladies include prostate cancer, lung cancer and diabetes. The committee has said that, for diabetes, more powerful influences include family history, physical inactivity and obesity.
The AP found in reviewing millions of VA compensation records that diabetes is now the most frequently compensated ailment, ahead of post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing loss or general wounds. VA officials use a complex formula when awarding benefits and do not track how much is spent for a specific ailment, but AP calculations based on the records suggest that Vietnam veterans with diabetes should receive at least $850 million each year.
Paul Sullivan, executive director for the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, said it would be unreasonable for veterans to have to prove on a case-by-case basis that their illness came from Agent Orange. He believes the science supports the decision by VA to grant presumptive benefits.
"The presumptive law is absolutely essential," he said. "Money should not be an issue."
Sullivan also said many veterans file claims not for the compensation but for access to free health care.
The VA also acknowledged in its heart disease rule Tuesday that it could cost billions more than initially anticipated. The initial projection was that the new ailments, mostly heart disease but also Parkinson's disease and certain types of leukemia, would total $42.2 billion over 10 years. But that was based on disease prevalence rates for the general population, not representative of the aging class of Vietnam veterans.
VA used an age-adjusted formula in its latest proposal and estimated that it could cost some $67 billion in the next decade.
"It's the kind of thing that's just driving us to this $1 trillion, $400 billion deficit this year," Simpson said. "It's not that I'm an uncaring person, but common sense is the most uncommon thing in Washington."