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Senate set to expand coverage and benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange

Posted at 5:19 PM, Dec 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-11 11:25:38-05

HELENA — The U.S. Senate is expected to follow suit with the U.S. House of Representatives in passing this year’s $740.5 billion defense bill.

Montana's U.S. Senator Jon Tester’s "Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act) of 2020 was included as an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. The provision will expand care and benefits for veterans who suffer from lingering effects and consequences of being near or handling Agent Orange.

Specifically, the amendment establishes a presumption of service connection for veterans suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinson’s symptoms.

“With the passage of this bill, this will put folks that have these three conditions into a higher priority group,” said Tester.

U.S. Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) has also supported efforts to expand Agent Orange care for veterans, and pushed for the inclusion of the amendment in October with 45 other senators.

Agent Orange is a herbicide and defoliant chemical that was commonly used during the Vietnam War. The compound has been directly linked to service members developing serious and life threatening conditions including several forms of cancer.

Deer Lodge native Rodney Williams will be one of the 34,000 veterans the legislation will directly benefit. Williams was drafted in to U.S. Army in 1966. His initial duties were that of an artilleryman with the 1st Air Cavalry Division. During his tour in Vietnam he became a radio/telephone operator for a forward observer, serving on the frontlines for indirect fire missions. During those missions Williams was exposed to Agent Orange.

More than 50 years after his tour ended, Williams is still feeling the consequences of the use of Agent Orange. Williams has been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition relatively rare for men.

“My hypothyroidism got so bad that I was having trouble with my heart and things like that,” explained Williams. “They operated on it and they found cancer in there so they took my whole thyroid out.” Williams says his family doesn’t have a history of thyroid issues.

In 2016, a study of thyroid patients in the National VA Health Care System found that veterans that had been exposed to Agent Orange had a higher prevalence of thyroid cancer than that national veteran population.

The VA had been conducting research on the connections between exposure to Agent Orange and the prevalence of bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinson’s symptoms. The Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study, or VE-HEROeS, was supposed to be released this year but was delayed due to team members on the project responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The passage of the defense legislation will circumvent the need of that research to get the conditions covered by benefits, and ensure they’re protected in the future.

“Folks in Rodney’s condition won’t have to wait four of five months to get in the door. It’ll put them in a much better position to get them through the door quicker. The higher priority group you’re in the easier it is to get the health care you need,” added Tester.