By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; B03
The Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing for more than 150,000 Vietnam War veterans to apply for benefits in the next 18 months thanks to new regulations making it easier to compensate for health problems caused by exposure to the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange.
Changes set for publication in Tuesday's Federal Register could result in payouts of about $42 billion in the next decade, VA said. But the department still could face resistance from lawmakers, including Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), concerned with how the department will pay out claims for ailments that are common among elderly Americans anyway, despite military service.
Under the new regulations, the VA will presume that veterans who served in Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, were exposed to Agent Orange and will add three medical conditions -- hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson's disease and ischemic heart disease -- to its list of disabilities presumed to have a connection to exposure to the herbicide.
The changes will go into effect in early November, after a two-month Congressional review period, VA said. The department also plans to review about 90,000 previously denied claims from veterans who had sought benefits for Agent Orange-related health problems.
Congress included $13.4 billion for Agent Orange-related benefits in this year's $58 billion supplemental spending bill. But Webb, a Vietnam veteran, has said that adding ischemic heart disease to the VA's list of approved diseases could result in the department paying veterans for a disease they might have contracted anyway as they aged.
"I take a back seat to no one in my concern for our veterans," Webb said in May. "I have spent my entire adult life one way or the other involved in veterans law. But I do think we need to have practical, proper procedures, and I do believe that the executive branch . . . needs to be held to an accountable standard."
Rick Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, defended the potentially high costs, saying the payments should be considered in the same context as the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We would make the point that many, many times the number of troops originally estimated have [traumatic brain injury] coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan," Weidman said. "Should we not then award it because it's too many people? It's the same argument -- an environmental wound is the same as a blast wound."
Webb sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on the new regulations on Sept. 23.