1 of 2 | Members of the Korean Disabled Veteran's Association for Agent Orange hold a vigil near the White House in Aug. 2006. The delegation of South Korean war veterans who are say they are victims of Agent Orange, sought compensation for their injuries from the U.S. government and chemical companies. File Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 12 (UPI) -- A civilian U.S. military expert praises what he says is the United States making incremental progress in increasing veterans' access to healthcare.
Patrick Murphy, the 32nd U.S. Army under secretary and the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress, told UPI on Monday that the Biden administration has "made incredible strides in ensuring all veterans get access to the care and benefits they've earned and rightly deserve."
The new VA policy change further expands the time frame and locations for which the federal government will assume that a military veteran was exposed to the toxic Agent Orange chemicals while in military service. Those chemicals have been linked to cancer, birth defects and more adverse health conditions.
Murphy -- who served in 2016 as President Barack Obama's U.S. Army secretary -- said that healthcare for U.S. military veterans has been improving, as this recent change highlights.
The proposed VA change -- which does not require congressional approval -- codifies provisions in the PACT Act, the Blue Water Navy Act of 2019 and the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021, two of three laws signed by President Joe Biden.
But the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act -- passed by Congress in 2019 and which extended the location for a presumption of exposure -- arrived "decades too late for Agent Orange exposure," Murphy said.
The right direction
Agent Orange was a toxic herbicide used abundantly by the U.S. government from 1962-1971 during the Vietnam War to eliminate forests and farm crops to aid U.S. military incursions primarily in south Asia.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs say that they are delivering more care and benefits to more military veterans now "than ever before in U.S. history." VA Secretary Denis McDonough called the Biden administration's Agent Orange policy shift "another step in the right direction."
"This proposed change would make it easier for veterans exposed to herbicides who served outside Vietnam to access the benefits they so rightly deserve," McDonough said in a statement.
And while the new VA policies on Agent Orange lower even more the burden of proof needed in order to get benefits, the VA will now "automatically assume that veterans who served in certain locations were exposed to certain toxins," according to the department.
Signed into law August 2022, the PACT Act, Murphy added, "continues to build on the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act." He stated his belief that McDonough's VA is "moving quickly in the right direction on toxic exposures" for U.S. military veterans.
A Pennsylvania congressman from 2007-2011 who lead the successful effort to end the U.S. government's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy, Murphy singled out Section 704 of the PACT Act -- which allows the VA to lease space from academic institutions or other entities to provide healthcare resources to veterans -- as evidence the VA system is getting better.
"Striking the balance between VA services and utilizing private sector expertise is a challenge," he said. "One that section 704 in the PACT Act aims to fix by giving the VA authority to enter into agreements with academic medical centers to help the VA maintain access and quality of care."