WASHINGTON — Secretary of Veterans Affairs Edward J. Derwinski, who had promised a quick decision on whether to grant disability payments to Vietnam War veterans because of exposure to Agent Orange, announced Friday that he will delay his decision until spring.
Derwinski said he wants to await the results of a major cancer study by the Centers for Disease Control before reaching a decision that could affect the 3.1 million Americans who served in the war in Southeast Asia. The CDC study, which involves a survey of thousands of Vietnam veterans for five cancers, began in 1985 and is expected to be released in the spring.
Veterans groups have been arguing for more than 12 years that Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used during the Vietnam War, is linked to cancers, birth defects and other serious disorders. Their claims have focused on dioxin, a potent carcinogen used in the herbicide.
Friday, spokesmen for veterans groups, most of which had applauded Derwinski's decision in May to reconsider the issue, condemned the delay as unnecessary.
"Sufficient studies have already been conducted. It's time for action," said Miles S. Epling, commander of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans group. Epling cited the legion's disagreements with earlier studies conducted by the CDC, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, and said: "Based on our previous experience with the CDC, any study generated by them would be suspect in our minds."
Derwinski said he is not attempting to avoid making a decision. In a statement he said he is "as determined now to resolve this issue as when I decided not to appeal" a May court decision that held his agency had been too strict in trying to determine whether the Agent Orange exposure could be directly linked to various ailments. "But it is logical to wait a few extra months for the results of the CDC study."
The secretary said he based his delay on the recommendations of an advisory committee, which recently reviewed more than 30 studies and scientific papers without reaching a clear conclusion on whether exposure to the chemicals could be linked to certain illnesses. According to the Veterans Affairs Department, the panel could find "no significant statistical relationship between non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a rare form of cancer, and human exposure to the type of chemicals used as defoliants in Vietnam, but that such an association couldn't be ruled out."
The advisory committee had been directed by Derwinski to reconsider the studies in the light of the ruling by the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The court, in a suit brought by veterans groups, said the Veterans Administration, as the agency was then known, had insisted on discovering a "causal relationship" between dioxin exposure and an ailment and should have sought "a significant statistical relationship," a less-rigid standard.
The American Legion's Epling said that "if there is anything positive in the statement, it is Secretary Derwinski's announced desire to take the entire issue of Agent Orange compensation at one time. Secretary Derwinski recognized that to announce whether or not conditions are compensable in a piecemeal fashion would be insensitive to thousands of suffering veterans."
The American Legion contends that Columbia University researchers, in studies funded by the legion, have shown "a definite correlation between medical and social problems among Vietnam veterans and their service in areas sprayed with the toxic defoliant." Veterans showed skin rashes, blisters, fatty-tissue tumors and hypersensitivity to light and an increased rate of miscarriages among spouses, the Legion said.
Thus far, the government has said that only chloracne, a severe skin rash, can be linked to the dioxin exposure, and it has granted disability benefits to only a handful of veterans with chloracne.
Earlier this month in New York, however, a federal judge ordered that lump-sum payments of as much as $8,900 will be sent by Christmas to 9,300 Vietnam veterans affected by Agent Orange. The ruling came in a 1984 settlement of a lawsuit in which seven chemical companies did not admit guilt but agreed to pay $180 million in compensation.