Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald is considering adding several diseases to a list of 15 conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure. This move would help disabled Vietnam veterans and their families significantly by easing the path to service connection for benefits.
So long as a veteran can establish his boots hit the ground in the Republic of Vietnam, the VA will presume he is service connected for any diseases on the “list.” Without question, these additions would speed up the process and make it much easier to win benefits.
IOM Correlates Parkinsonism, Hypothyroidism, Bladder Cancer with Agent Orange Exposure
The Institute of Medicine (IOM), a division of the National Academy of Sciences, released its final bi-annual review of evidence of health problems linked to herbicide exposure in March 2016. The IOM observed that new research suggests a stronger correlation between Agent Orange exposure and several diseases.
According to data collected from 1 million Vietnam veterans in the VA system, 15,983 were diagnosed with hypothyroidism 5,484 with bladder cancer and 1,833 with Parkinsonism.
According to the IOM, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism show “limited or suggestive” evidence of association with Agent Orange. “Limited or suggestive” evidence means that an epidemiological link between herbicide exposure and an increased risk of health problems could exist. This represents a stronger degree of association than the VA has previously acknowledged for these conditions.
Currently, though Parkinson’s disease is already included on the list, the VA often denies veterans service connection for Parkinsonism. Parkinsonism is a condition that exhibits symptoms similar to Parkinson’s (tremor, rigidity, postural instability, bradykinesia), but is not a true Parkinson’s diagnosis. For a Vietnam veteran presumed to be exposed to Agent Orange, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease creates eligibility to obtain presumptive service connection. This is not the case when the diagnosis is Parkinsonism.
In light of the IOMs recent findings, the VA may consider adding Parkinsonism to the list of diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure. The IOM report concluded that there is no rational basis for excluding Parkinson-like symptoms from the presumptive list.
Limited or Suggestive Linkage May Not Guarantee Addition to Presumptive List
Diseases like Parkinson’s and ischemic heart disease show limited or suggestive epidemiological linkage with Agent Orange exposure, enough for the VA to include them on the presumptive list. However, the VA does not add all diseases that share a limited or suggestive nexus with herbicide exposure to the list.
According to the VA, 307,324 Vietnam veterans in the VA system suffer from hypertension. Yet the VA has not agreed to add hypertension to the list of diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure.
My hope is that the VA eventually adds pancreatic cancer to the list as well. All too often, I’ve seen veterans lose their lives to pancreatic cancer - veterans with no risk factors for the disease other than Agent Orange exposure. The VA currently denies these claims, saying there is no scientific evidence linking Agent Orange exposure to pancreatic cancer.
Continued Changes in Medical Science and VA Regulations Bolster Veterans’ Appeals
The recent news from the IOM’s bi-annual review of evidence provides further proof that veterans should never give up on their claims or appeals. As time goes on, changes in the law occur and can eventually lead the veteran to a successful outcome.
As a veterans’ disability attorney who has been practicing for a significant amount of time, I have seen continual changes and additions to the Agent Orange list over the years. The latest IOM findings certainly illustrate our appreciation for the constant change and growth of medical science.
The recent IOM findings will help disabled veterans with Parkinsonism, bladder cancer or hypothyroidism win their VA benefits claim appeals. If you are a Vietnam veteran who has had a claim for bladder cancer, hypothyroidism or Parkinsonism denied by the VA, I recommend that you contact a qualified veterans’ benefits lawyer right away to help you with your VA appeal.