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Court Orders Retroactive Payments for Ill Veterans

Ruling: The appeals panel's decision applies to thousands who have prostate cancer or diabetes and had been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

April 02, 2002|From Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court ruled Monday that the Department of Veterans Affairs must pay retroactive disability payments to thousands of Vietnam veterans suffering diabetes and prostate cancer after being exposed to Agent Orange.

The payments must date to when veterans initially applied for benefits under a law that allowed them to do so beginning Sept. 25, 1985. Because of a complicated rule-making procedure, the government said the cancer victims could not receive benefits until Nov. 7, 1996, if they filed a claim after Jan. 4, 1994.

The appeals court nullified that government interpretation, which affects about 1,200 veterans, said Barton F. Stichman, executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

Also undermined by the ruling was the government's position that veterans suffering from adult onset diabetes could not get benefits until July 9, 2001, if they filed a claim between Jan. 4, 1994, and July 9, 2001, Stichman said.

"All I can tell you is for the last 20 years the VA has dragged its feet on the Agent Orange issue. They try every way they can to come up with theories to why they shouldn't give benefits," said Stichman, who filed suit in 1986.

Phil Budahn, a Veterans Affairs spokesman, said the government had not seen the decision and could not comment.

From 1962 to 1971, the United States sprayed 19 million gallons of herbicides over southern Vietnam to destroy jungle cover for Communist troops. About 55% of that was Agent Orange.

Over the years, the government has added a host of diseases associated with Agent Orange entitling veterans to disability benefits. Those include several cancers, including cancer of the lung, larynx and trachea. Last year, the U.S. recognized adult onset diabetes.

The ruling puts prostate cancer and adult onset diabetes in line with the other diseases acknowledged by the government to have links to Agent Orange, meaning disability benefits would be paid from when a claim was filed.

For many veterans, the government has paid retroactive benefits as litigation continued. The government reserved the right to take back the benefits if it won the suit.

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