President Clinton will announce a plan today intended to make it easier for veterans to receive health care and other benefits if they are suffering from illnesses presumably related to service in the Persian Gulf War, administration officials said yesterday.
The proposal would create a permanent statutory program aimed at Gulf veterans and designed to provide care even if they cannot prove that their ailments were caused by chemical or biological exposure during the 1991 campaign to get Iraq out of Kuwait.
The idea for such a program came from the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, which presented its final report to Clinton yesterday. In a related move, officials said, the White House intends to announce the creation of a new independent panel to review the government's research into the mysterious illnesses that have eluded explanation.
Former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) will be chairman of the new oversight board, which will have about five members. Administration sources said another member will be retired Navy Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt; however, his appointment will not be announced immediately because it is still being vetted.
The oversight board apparently was meant as a response to the advisory committee, which urged Clinton not to allow either the Defense or Veterans Affairs departments to supervise government research because it believes they bungled efforts to discover why thousands of veterans have become ill.
The administration is depending on the Rudman and Zumwalt appointments to restore credibility to the government's investigation and "provide the veterans with the confidence that they should have," as one senior official put it.
Rudman previously was tapped by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to oversee the Pentagon's Persian Gulf programs, and Zumwalt, a former chief of naval operations, fought to expand Agent Orange benefits to Vietnam War veterans.
Under the proposed benefits program, which would require congressional approval, the burden of proof essentially would shift so that veterans no longer would have to show that their ailments were related to their service in the Middle East. Instead, according to officials, there would be a presumption that their ailments were caused through their service if they can demonstrate that such symptoms are more prevalent among those who fought in the Gulf War than among veterans generally and if there is a scientifically plausible cause.
The National Academy of Sciences will be asked to review existing research and determine whether certain illnesses show up more commonly in Gulf War veterans than other service members.
Clinton accepted other recommendations as well, including one creating a new comprehensive "force health protection" program to monitor troops in future conflicts and another earmarking $13 million more for research on low-level exposure to chemical agents.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company