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Report: VA may have mishandled vets' Agent Orange benefits claims

The Government Accountability Office recommends the Veterans Affairs Department provide clearer guidance on claims processing.

WASHINGTON — From 1965 to 1970, an Air Force mission code-named "Operation Ranch Hand" sprayed around 12 million gallons of the toxic defoliant, Agent Orange, over 4.5 million acres in Vietnam. 

Because the herbicide was used so heavily during that time, the government now presumes that 15 illnesses are service-connected for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, including Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Parkinson's Disease and Lung Cancer.

But for decades, the Department of Veterans Affairs has denied most disability claims by Vietnam veterans for three other conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange: nerve damage, skin cysts, and blistering.

The VA insisted that those conditions must have manifested within one year of service in Vietnam for the VA to presume a connection between the condition and exposure.

Now, the Government Accountability Office in a new report, says VA "claims processors didn't consistently understand what evidence could be used to support that connection. This could lead to wrongly denying benefits to some veterans."

"We did see inconsistencies that those that are tasked with reviewing medical evidence did not always rely on evidence that is allowable," said Elizabeth Curda, a director in the GAO's Education, Workforce, and Income Security team and the author of the report.

In an interview with 13News Now, Curda added: "We hope that claims processors in the future make accurate decisions and we have made specific recommendations that VA fix their guidance so it is very, very clear."

The GAO recommends that the VA clarify its guidance for evaluating these specific Agent Orange claims. The VA agreed with the GAO's recommendation. 

Around 1.5 million Vietnam vets from that era receive VA benefits today. The GAO estimates that the VA granted benefits to about 11,000 veterans for benefits to cover the three specific Agent Orange conditions in question.

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