Vietnam Vets, Agent Orange, and Type 2 Diabetes

Despite the lack of a strong link between type 2 diabetes and Agent Orange, the government is paying Vietnam veterans hundreds of millions of dollars for the disease on the basis of Agent Orange exposure.

Diabetes is one of several conditions presumably associated with Agent Orange for which veterans can receive disability checks, and it’s now their leading complaint– It has  even moved ahead of post-traumatic stress disorder and battlefield injuries. Veterans Administration records uncovered by the Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act show that 270,000 Vietnam veterans receive payments for type 2 diabetes. That’s more than 25 percent of all of those getting disability compensation.

By contrast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 23 percent of all people older than 60 years have diabetes.

“It’s nothing more than a bunch of BS,” former pilot Jack Spey told the AP. He helped spray Agent Orange from his plane for more than three years and does not receive VA disability benefits. 

“There needs to be a discussion about the costs, about how to avoid false positives while also trying to be sure the system bends over backwards to be fair to the veterans,” public health researcher Jonathan Samet told the AP. He led a 2008 study that criticized the government’s willingness to grant so many benefits.

Why is the government paying $850 million a year (the AP’s estimate) for these diabetes claims? To find the answers, you have to look at the history of Agent Orange exposure and the government’s reaction.

Agent Orange was a defoliant used in the Vietnam War. It was sprayed from planes in hope of exposing the position of enemy troops on the ground. A lot of the chemical was inadvertently sprayed on U.S. forces as well, and scientists later proved that it caused serious health problems.

A federal law passed in 1991 allows the VA to automatically grant benefits to veterans who can prove they were in Vietnam during the 13-year span of Agent Orange spraying and who suffer from certain ailments. Among the original five ailments are non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and soft-tissue cancers.

The list has expanded since then. Diabetes and other kinds of cancer are now included, and heart disease and Parkinson’s disease will soon join them. Secondary conditions are covered too. That means that diabetic complications, such as erectile dysfunction or eye problems, can bring a bigger check from the government.

The Veterans Health Administration’s Dr. Victoria Anne Cassano says that the wording of the 1991 law forces officials’ hands. It says that they should connect diseases to Agent Orange “if the credible evidence for the association is equal to or outweighs the credible evidence against the association.”

In other words, the bar is set very low. The law says the VA can’t consider cost, either.

“Does it make you take a deep breath? Does it give you pause? Yes,” Cassano told the AP. “But you still do what you think is the right thing to do.”

The newest additions to the list of diseases purportedly associated with Agent Orange will cost an eye-popping $42 billion over the next decade. Virginia Senator Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran himself,  has said the law wasn’t meant to apply so broadly, but there is talk in Congress of covering even more veterans.

The government’s attitude is much different in Vietnam, the country where Agent Orange was dropped. Federal funds have helped clean up the chemical, but the U.S. ambassador claims there’s not enough evidence of health risks to help ill residents.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Question: What diseases does the government recognize as being connected to Agent Orange exposure?

Answer: The Department of Veterans Affairs lists these 14. (Three of them, marked with an asterisk, are still under review.) Conditions secondary to these diseases are also covered, although they’re not listed separately.

– Acute and Subacute Peripheral Neuropathy

– AL Amyloidosis
– Chloracne (or Similar Acneform Disease)
– Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and Other Chronic B Cell Leukemias*
– Diabetes Mellitus (Type 2)
– Hodgkin’s Disease
– Ischemic Heart Disease*
– Multiple Myeloma
– Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
– Parkinson’s Disease*
– Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
– Prostate Cancer
– Respiratory Cancers

– Soft Tissue Sarcoma (other than Osteosarcoma, Chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or Mesothelioma)

Question: Why is type 2 diabetes included in that list?

Answer: The nonprofit Institute of Medicine publishes a regular analysis of scientific research, which is used by the VA. In 2000, the institute found the possibility of a connection between diabetes and the defoliant, but it also said that other factors like lifestyle and family history play a bigger part. Regardless, after the possible link was reported, the VA put type 2 diabetes on the list the next year.

Question: What benefits do veterans receive if their diabetes is connected to Agent Orange?

Answer: They can receive disability payments. They can also receive healthcare benefits and a free exam for the Agent Orange Registry, which tracks health concerns of veterans who were exposed.

Question: If I’m a Vietnam veteran who has type 2 diabetes and thinks it might be connected to Agent Orange, what should I do?

Answer: The VA has several numbers you can call. The department’s toll-free helpline is 1-800-749-8387. If you have concerns about healthcare, call 1-877-222-8387 and ask for the environmental health coordinator or patient care advocate. For information on disability benefits, call 1-800-827-1000. Online, go to    




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