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Schumer Ramps Up Efforts To Aid Vietnam Vets

U.S. Sen. Schumer is pictured at Memorial Park. In the background are Mayor Wilfred Rosas, County Executive PJ Wendel and John Miga of American Legion Post 62. File photo

On a blustery, bitter morning of Feb. 20, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer made a plea in Dunkirk’s Memorial Park to help Vietnam veterans who may have been touched by Agent Orange during their service to the United States. In making the announcement he called on two federal agencies to work to expand health-care benefits to the more than 240,000 New Yorkers who served in the Vietnam War.

With Vietnam-era veterans in attendance, as well as those from other wars, Schumer called on the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Veterans Affairs, to stop playing games, end the years-long dispute, and add new conditions to the Agent Orange presumptive conditions list.

“It’s an absolute disgrace to have our government say that you’re not getting the benefits you’re entitled to caused by your brave service overseas,” he said, noting 32,000 Western New Yorkers served in the war in the 1960s and ’70s.

On Friday, there appeared to be some traction for the cause. After successfully securing an amendment to the Senate’s Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which expanded the list of diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, Schumer announced that the final version of the act will include his amendment, which authorizes $8 billion in new benefits for vets suffering from Agent Orange-linked illnesses. Those veterans, Schumer said, may be suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and parkinsonism will be able to access healthcare and benefits, numbers that have expanded because of the senator’s amendment associating additional diseases with exposure to Agent Orange.

“After years and years of suffering and fighting, I proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with our Western New York vets who were exposed to Agent Orange to get Congress to take a major step forward and grant our heroes access to the medical care they need and have earned,” Schumer said in a press release Friday. “It’s taken far too long, and we still need to see this change signed into law, but veterans across the country can celebrate today as a victory. We will work together to get this across the finish line in the very near future so those who put their lives on the line for our freedom can get the healthcare they deserve.”

Schumer has fought for years to not only secure funding for Agent Orange-affected veterans’ health benefits, but also to increase the number of veterans who have access to those benefits. The senator emphasized the importance of adding added bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism to the list of diseases associated with ‘Agent Orange’ exposure, and reiterated just how long this fight has been waged.

Last year, the Schumer secured a provision in the budget deal requiring Office of Management and Budget and the VA to issue a detailed report to Congress on the delay in adding these conditions to the presumptive conditions list, but the report was woefully insufficient and Schumer said those agencies failed to properly explain why they were denying veterans. In addition to the failure to include bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism on the Agent Orange presumptive conditions list, the VA has never acted on a 2018 National Academies report that found sufficient evidence of association between exposure to herbicides and hypertension.

Schumer also explained that per the Agent Orange Act of 1991, the VA automatically accepts that if a Vietnam Veteran physically served in Vietnam between January 1962 and May 1975, it is probable that the veteran was exposed to an herbicide agent like Agent Orange. Furthermore, the Act established a list of “presumed” diseases that the VA stipulates are caused by Agent Orange exposure. Therefore, if a veteran served in Vietnam at any time between 1962-1975 and is diagnosed with one or more of the diseases VA recognizes as service connected, the VA will compensate the veteran and his or her family.

However, even though there has been scientific evidence linking Parkinsonism, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism to Agent Orange exposure, they are not currently on the VA’s list of recognized presumptive conditions. “The odds are very high that hundreds (who served in Vietnam) have one of these illnesses,” Schumer said in February in Dunkirk. “So we are fighting for them. … Put these four illnesses on the presumptive list … and do it fast.”

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