[to top of second column]
While Spey said policymakers have gone too far in granting benefits, Navy veteran Jonathan Haas believes they have not gone far enough. He petitioned the VA for years for recognition of a diabetes link to Agent Orange, saying he saw large clouds of chemicals drift over the waters off Vietnam and engulf his ship. He unsuccessfully challenged the VA rule that provided automatic compensation for diabetes only for those who set foot in Vietnam or worked on the country's inland waterways.
The VA eventually granted him 100 percent disability -- he is now drawing $36,000 a year, according to VA records -- in part for diabetes after medical records from his service indicated that his condition had developed before he left the military. Other Navy veterans, he said, are not as lucky.
"They're getting screwed," said Haas, a 72-year-old who blames diabetes for his blindness, kidney failure and difficulty standing.
Some members of Congress are pushing to include those veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam -- which would add an estimated 800,000 people to the 2.6 million who served there on land. Cassano, the VA official, said the agency is looking at it.
The case of the Navy electrician who spent eight hours in Vietnam is detailed in the documents reviewed by the AP. As with most public portions of VA claims records, the man's name is omitted.
The government's benefit-of-the-doubt policy contrasts with its stand toward Vietnam. The U.S. has approved several million dollars in recent years to help Vietnam clean up Agent Orange. But it has declined to provide health and financial support to Vietnamese people affected by the herbicide, with the American ambassador in Hanoi saying there is insufficient evidence that it causes health problems.
Disability benefits are a lot like workers' compensation, providing income to veterans who incurred ailments from their active-duty service. The benefits can last a lifetime even if the veteran holds a full-time job. They often transfer to surviving family members when a veteran dies of the disability. They are paid in addition to any medical, education and pension coverage that veterans receive.
Many veterans have a combination of ailments that are crunched in a formula to determine their benefits. This makes it difficult to determine how much is being spent solely on diabetes.
Most veterans get a 20 percent disability rating for diabetes, which amounts to about $3,000 per year if it is their only ailment. Others get up to 100 percent. If each of the 270,000 Vietnam veterans got the minimum compensation for their diabetes, it would add up to $850 million every year.
Congress gave the VA the ability to deem ailments "presumptive" -- automatically awarded -- because of exposure to Agent Orange. The VA did that for five illnesses for which the Institute of Medicine found "sufficient evidence of an association," such as leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and soft-tissue cancers. Those illnesses have risen dramatically in both Vietnam and the U.S. since the war.
The list of "presumptive" medical problems has grown to include seven ailments with only a "limited or suggestive" link to Agent Orange -- a link that scientists said could be influenced by other factors, such as chance or bias in scientific studies. Those include diabetes along with prostate cancer and lung cancer.
Anthony Principi, a Vietnam veteran and former VA secretary who added diabetes to the list, said he struggled with the decision.
"I did the best I could with the information that was given to me. I wish there was more information that I could have had," he said. Principi said he expected a surge of diabetes claims but is still surprised by the numbers.
The evidence of a link between Agent Orange and heart disease or Parkinson's is inconclusive, according to the Institute of Medicine. But the VA is moving ahead with plans to add both illnesses to the list of presumptive conditions.
The VA estimated earlier this year that heart disease compensation alone will cost taxpayers more than $30 billion over the next decade. About 17 percent of Americans ages 65 to 74 have heart disease, according to the CDC.
Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat and Vietnam combat veteran, questioned the decision to spend billions for heart disease coverage. In a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki this year, the lawmaker said Congress intended that benefits would be automatically granted "for relatively rare conditions."
"Over time, however, presumptions have expanded to include common diseases of aging," Webb wrote.
Compensation can also be awarded for ailments secondary to the covered condition. Type 2 diabetes, for example, can bring a host of complications, such as high blood pressure, erectile dysfunction or cataracts.
Erectile dysfunction is now the seventh-most-compensated disability for Vietnam veterans, with more than 80,000 getting benefits for it last year, and an AP review of hundreds of case summaries found that many of the claims stemmed from veterans with diabetes linked to Agent Orange.
Spey, the Ranch Hand veteran, blames politicians who are unwilling to reject the claims of aging veterans.
"We're all going to die someday," he said.
VA list of diseases associated with Agent Orange
Institute of Medicine report on Agent Orange:
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
< Recent articles
Back to top
News | Sports | Business | Rural Review | Teaching & Learning | Home and Family | Tourism | Obituaries
Law & Courts |
Spiritual Life |
Health & Fitness |
Calendar | Letters to the Editor