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VA disease dispute getting heated

VA 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 fund.

“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.

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.

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.

Webb said he even fired off a letter to President 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.

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

It was the Carter administration, he said, that adopted a presumption “that everyone who was in Vietnam was exposed” to Agent Orange. At the time, he said, the decision wasn’t “onerous” on VA budgets because the department only had linked Agent Orange to some rare illnesses.

More recently, VA has found links to ailments generally associated with aging, committing VA to pay billions in additional compensation. Webb felt the scientific evidence linking Type II diabetes to Agent Orange in 2001 was soft. He is reluctant to say the same about the three illnesses Shinseki has endorsed until he hears his testimony.