Agent Orange:

Limited Information Is Available on the Number of Civilians Exposed in Vietnam and Their Workers' Compensation Claims

GAO-05-371: Published: Apr 22, 2005. Publicly Released: Apr 22, 2005.

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Concerns about difficulties civilian employees of the U.S. government may have in obtaining workers' compensation benefits for medical conditions they developed as a result of their exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam led to GAO being asked to determine (1) what is known about the number of civilians who served in Vietnam, both those employed directly by the U.S. government and those employed by companies that contracted with the government; (2) what is known about the number, processing, and disposition of claims filed by these civilians; and (3) what options are available if Congress chooses to improve access to benefits for civilians exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam who developed illnesses as a result of their exposure, and what are their cost implications?

While many federal agencies that were likely employers of civilian federal and contract workers during the Vietnam War had little information on these employees, a few provided us with limited information on federal employees and the amounts of contracts for companies that provided services to the military in Vietnam. We were unable to determine the reliability of the data provided. However, we used these data for the limited purpose of estimating that between 72,000 and 171,000 civilians may have worked for the U.S. government in Vietnam between 1964 and 1974. Our ability to provide more accurate information on the size of this workforce was limited because most agency records maintained during this period were not computerized, and because so much time has elapsed that many paper records have been destroyed and many agency personnel knowledgeable of the period are no longer working at these agencies. For the 32 Agent Orange-related claims identified (12 from federal civilians and 20 from contract employees), we found that these claimants faced many difficulties and delays because of a lack of readily available information on how to file a claim, their Vietnam era employers, and their exposure to Agent Orange, as well as processing delays caused by employers, insurance carriers, and Labor. Both Labor and private insurance carriers had difficulty identifying the number of claims they had received, largely because they do not assign a unique code to Agent Orange claims that would enable easy identification. Most of the claims we identified were filed in the past 10 years, and most have been denied. Denials of the claims stemmed, in part, from the fact that under the laws governing these claims, claimants must demonstrate a causal link between their exposure to Agent Orange and their medical conditions, which is difficult to prove so many years later. If Congress chooses to address this issue, several legislative options could be considered to attempt to improve access to compensation for civilians who were exposed to Agent Orange and developed medical conditions as a result, although they could have significant cost and policy implications. Congress could amend current law authorizing benefits for veterans to cover certain civilians or set up a separate program to cover them. Another option is for Congress to amend the GI Bill Improvement Act of 1977, which allows DOD to retroactively grant military status and authorize full VA benefits to certain civilian groups that support the military during armed conflicts. However, it is difficult to assess the potential costs of these options because of the limited data available on the number of civilians and their claims for compensation. Despite the difficulty of assessing the potential costs, before any of these options are pursued, their fiscal impact and the precedent-setting implications for individuals involved in other wars and conflicts since the Vietnam era should be carefully considered.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the handling of civilian Agent Orange claims, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs to assign a unique identifying code to Agent Orange claims and develop procedures to ensure that these claims are coded correctly.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2005, Labor's case management system for the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA) was modified to accommodate a new prefix (DX) for cases reporting injuries sustained as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. In December 2005, the FECA Procedure Manual was updated to reflect the new code. In addition, Labor's Long Shore Case Management System was changed in March 2005 to record and preserve a unique injury code for Agent Orange claims as well as requiring a country code for Vietnam. The accuracy of data entered in both systems will be subject to Labor's current performance measures and standards.

    Recommendation: To improve the handling of civilian Agent Orange claims, the Secretary of Labor should provide better oversight of licensed Defense Base Act (DBA) insurance carriers by requiring the Office of Longshore and Harbor Workers to track the information it retains on licensed insurance carriers for Vietnam era employers in an easily searchable format, such as in an automated file, and track changes in ownership for each licensed carrier in order to be able to determine liability for payments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In August 2007, the Longshore Program reported that it has not implemented any database action on insurance records since the report was issued in 2005. The program does not have funding for revising its database. If funding is received, back filling insurance cards from the Vietnam Era will be included in the priorities for system upgrades. However, the problem of tracking the successive ownership changes of the carriers over the years remains and no systematic way to reconstruct these historical changes has been identified. The Longshore National Office does have some, though not all, historical insurance records that may be useful in this regard. District Office staff are instructed to request National Office assistance if the responsible carrier cannot be identified. There has been no change in the agency's response in FY08 or FY 09 for tracking insurance carrier information from the Vietnam era, however, the agency has indicated it is looking at the feasibility of maintaining insurance carrier information for civilians involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts in the future.

    Recommendation: To improve the handling of civilian Agent Orange claims, the Secretary of Labor should direct the appropriate offices to provide contract employees with the information needed to file Agent Orange claims by taking such measures as posting information on Labor's Web sites or developing informational brochures that include information on how to file a claim under DBA, such as which forms to use, and information on Vietnam era contractors with the names of their insurance carriers licensed by Labor.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Longshore Program website has been enhanced to direct potential claimants to the existing Defense Base Act (DBA) question and answer web page, where the information and forms for submitting claims are already available at www.dol.gov.esa/owcp/dlhwc/DBAFaqs.htm. Furthermore, this section has been specifically updated with reference to claims arising from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. This update was implemented in May 2005. As for posting information on Vietnam era contractors, Labor agrees to preserve information it still has on Vietnam era employment. All Defense Base Contractors are listed on Longshore website.

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