Advocacy Group Helping Veterans Receive Agent Orange Compensation

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Advocacy Group Helping Veterans Receive Agent Orange Compensation

Apr 17, 2001, Dave Eberhart
Stars and Stripes Veterans Affairs Editor

Washington, D.C.--Each day, boxes of medical records arrive at VA
headquarters from regional offices across the nation. Attorneys like Jimmy
Pritchard of the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) comb
through each file for references to diseases linked to exposure to dioxin
from Agent Orange.

The VA says that about 8,700 veterans and 850 of their children currently
receive benefits for dioxin-linked illnesses. But according to the NVLSP,
the VA may not have been paying veterans or their widows the full amount
owed them under a 1991 ruling by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in
San Francisco.

Henderson recently ruled that the VA must pay the estates of veterans who
were owed compensation but who died before the VA got around to paying them.
The Justice Department has not decided whether it will challenge that
decision. The deadline for filing an appeal is May 31.

Congress, under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, directed the National Academy
of Sciences (NAS) to determine which diseases suffered by veterans were
linked to dioxin, a carcinogenic constituent of Agent Orange, a defoliant
used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Under "Operation Ranch
Hand," the U.S. military sprayed 17.6 million gallons of herbicides over
about 3.6 million acres.

1986 Lawsuit

In 1986 the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) sued the VA in
Henderson's court, saying the VA was denying disability payments to ailing
Vietnam veterans exposed to dioxin. At the time, the VA insisted that the
only dioxin-linked disease was chloracne, a skin condition.



The VA had sharply tipped the scales against veterans by requiring claimants
to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between their illnesses and dioxin.
- Judge Henderson



In 1991, Henderson ruled that the VA had "sharply tipped the scales" against
veterans by requiring claimants to prove a cause-and-effect relationship
between their illnesses and dioxin. Admonishing the VA for failing to give
veterans the benefit of the doubt when expert studies were split down the
middle over dioxin's health effects, he also said the VA had consistently
violated the Veterans' Dioxin and Radiation Exposure Compensation Standards
Act of 1984.

Overturning its "chloracne-only" policy, Henderson reversed the VA's
rejection of 31,000 claims and ordered it to draft new regulations. He
eventually issued a landmark order specifying how much veterans would
receive in retroactive benefits if their diseases were found to be linked to
dioxin.

By the end of 2000, more than three-dozen illnesses had been officially
linked to dioxin. Henderson repeatedly chastised the VA for ignoring
veterans' claims and failing to follow his rulings on compensating them for
their illnesses.

The list of Agent Orange-linked illnesses now includes cancers of the
trachea, bronchus, larynx and lung; Hodgkin's disease, a cancer that starts
in lymphatic tissue; multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow; and more
than two dozen soft-tissue sarcomas--malignant tumors.

Also on the list are prostate cancer and spina bifida, a birth defect
resulting from the failure of the spine to close properly during the first
month of pregnancy. Its inclusion marked the first time veterans' offspring
had qualified for disability benefits.

Court Raps VA

In 1999, Henderson ruled that the VA's treatment of some claimants was
"inconsistent with both the spirit and intent" of the court rulings and the
"liberal nature of the VA's own claims process," under which the VA is
required to help veterans and widows prepare claims.

The NVLSP so far has reviewed some 12,500 files and identified more than
1,500 disabled veterans and widows whom the organization says are owed
money.

"I suppose I look at it the way a physician would look at someone who has
just been in an accident," Pritchard said. "The best thing you can do to
help that person is stay cool and calm. That way you won't make mistakes, or
misread something or overreact. You solve the problem for somebody."

The NVLSP has turned over 300 files to the VA with requests for payment.
Bill Russo, a VA spokesman, said the agency has reviewed about 200 of these
files and paid benefits to about 130 individuals. Some claimants didn't
qualify because they had received other military benefits, Russo said.

The average award has been about $35,000, according to the NVLSP. Last year,
one disabled veteran received $109,659.

As they sifted through medical files, NVLSP researchers found that the VA
apparently had withheld retroactive benefits due 1,268 veterans with
prostate cancer. NVLSP lawyers returned to Henderson's courtroom last year,
alleging the VA was again violating his 1991 order. The judge concurred.

NVLSP: Hundreds More



In the final analysis, the VA's position amounts to little more than an
expression of its desire to be relieved from part of the obligations it
agreed to in 1991.
- Judge Henderson



"In the final analysis, the VA's position amounts to little more than an
expression of its desire to be relieved from part of the obligations it
agreed to in 1991, a desire to which this Court will pay no heed," Henderson
wrote in a decision handed down last December.

NVLSP officials say there may be hundreds more veterans and widows who are
owed benefits.

Veterans and surviving family members of Vietnam veterans can obtain
information about VA benefits for Agent Orange exposure by writing to the
National Veterans Legal Services Program, 2001 S Street NW, Suite 610,
Washington, D.C. 20009-1125; calling the NVLSP at 202-265-8305, ext. 119, or
sending an e-mailing to nvlsp@nvlsp.org. The NVLSP website is at
www.nvlsp.org.

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