AP 7/20/07 SAN FRANCISCO – An appeals court chastised the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday and ordered the agency to pay retroactive benefits to Vietnam War veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange and contracted a form of leukemia.”The performance of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has contributed substantially to our sense of national shame,” the opinion from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals read.
It was not immediately known how much the department would have to pay under the order or how many veterans would be affected.
VA spokesman Phil Budahn said late Thursday that officials were reviewing the ruling, and declined further comment.
The VA agreed in 2003 to extend benefits to Vietnam vets diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, known as CLL. U.S. troops had sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides over parts of South Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and ’70s to clear dense jungle, and researchers later linked CLL to Agent Orange.
But the VA did not re-examine previous claims from veterans suffering from the ailment, nor did it pay them retroactive benefits, which was at the heart of the latest dispute.
Thursday’s opinion was on a technical matter involving whether a lower court had properly interpreted a landmark agreement in 1991 on benefits, stemming from a class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1986.
The appeals court sided with veterans groups who said the veterans were entitled to retroactive benefits.
“We would hope that this litigation will now end, that our government will now respect the legal obligations it undertook in the consent decree some 16 years ago, that obstructionist bureaucratic opposition will now cease, and that our veterans will finally receive the benefits to which they are morally and legally entitled,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the court’s opinion.
Richard Spataro, a lawyer with the National Veterans Legal Services Program, said Thursday’s ruling could finally halt years of legal battles – if the VA does not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Spataro said if researchers link other disabilities to Agent Orange the decision will prevent the VA from denying retroactive benefits for those veterans, too.