Harder Pushing for Bipartisan Vietnam Vets Legislation in Defense Bill
After securing the support of over 30 of the nation's largest veterans' groups, Representative Josh Harder (CA-10) announced that his top priority for this year's annual defense bill is including his legislation, the Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act. The bill would require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide presumptive benefits to Vietnam Veterans exposed to Agent Orange who are currently left out of a program designed to assist them. The VA doesn't currently recognize bladder cancer, parkinsonism or hypothyroidism as being linked to exposure to Agent Orange despite a comprehensive study indicating a link by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM). Rep. Harder introduced his bipartisan bill earlier this year and hopes to get it appended to the annual defense bill, formally known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
"Vietnam Vets have been waiting for this for decades and it's a national shame that it's not fixed yet. We have a real chance here to make this right after all this time and we should seize the opportunity," said Rep. Harder. "With a bipartisan team of lawmakers and the support of the entire veterans community we have a strong chance to finally get this done."
This week, more than 30 of the largest veterans advocacy organizations in the country sent a letter to House Leadership insisting that Rep. Harder's legislation be included as an amendment to this year's defense bill. The letter to House Leadership is available here. Although Rep. Harder's original bipartisan bill included four conditions proven to be linked to Agent Orange exposure, Rep. Harder introduced an amendment in the House that is identical to an amendment introduced in the Senate by Jon Tester of Montana, to increase the probability that it is included in the final version of the bill.
Later this week, the House Rules Committee will make decisions on which amendments will be considered on the full floor of the House of Representatives during next week's vote series on the defense bill. The amendment is being led by Rep. Harder and Rep. Pete Stauber (MN-08), and also has the cosponsorship of: Representatives Debbie Dingell (MI-12), Peter DeFazio (OR-04), Don Young (AK-AL), Josh Gottheimer (NJ-05), Jeff Van Drew (NJ-02), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Joe Neguse (CO-02), Zoe Lofgren (CA-19), Jamie Raskin (MD-08), and Dean Phillips (MN-03).
Representative Harder has been pushing for the amendment alongside one of his constituents, Vietnam Veteran Joshua Melendez, who is fighting bladder cancer. During his service, Mr. Melendez spent time on helicopters, which kicked up dust and residue from Agent Orange sprayed on the jungle. Mr. Melendez's story was covered by local news outlet Fox 40 earlier this year. Rep. Harder also invited Melendez to be his guest to the 2020 State of the Union.
Last year, President Trump signed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act into law to expand coverage for Agent Orange-related health conditions to Vietnam Veterans who served in the Navy. However, the program still does not include veterans of any branch who are experiencing bladder cancer, parkinsonism, hypothyroidism, or hypertension because of their exposure to Agent Orange. Although NAM has found a link between these conditions and exposure to Agent Orange, the VA has claimed there is not sufficient scientific evidence to justify adding the conditions to the list. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told Senators in January that the decision on whether to add the conditions wouldn't come until at least "late 2020." However, last year, the VA told Congress a decision would be made by July 2019.
In response to the VA's lack of action, Rep. Harder and Republican Rep. Stauber introduced the bipartisan Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act in January, which would add the four conditions to the presumptive list to ensure qualifying veterans get automatic access to benefits.
Representative Harder previously introduced a House Resolution alongside Senator Sherrod Brown to encourage the president to add the conditions to the presumptive list. In addition to introducing the bill and resolution, Rep. Harder, along with House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) wrote a letter directly to Mick Mulvaney demanding that he stop his campaign to prevent these veterans from obtaining health care coverage for their conditions.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin attempted to add these four conditions to the presumptive list in 2019, but records obtained by Military Times and Freedom of Information requests indicate that Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director and former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney intervened to prevent the addition of these conditions over cost concerns.