Senator Jon Tester, the new Chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, speaks about one of his top legislative priorities in the next session.

Senate lawmakers will make an effort this year to officially add high blood pressure to the list of illnesses presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, a move that could open up disability awards to over 160,000 veterans.

In an interview with Military Times this week, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., Said the issue would be a top priority for his committee and that he had already started work on legislative fixes for the matter.

“Look, we are trying to survive the Vietnam veterans now,” he said. “The science is out there, making sure they get the benefits they deserve is really important to me.

“I think it’s almost criminal that they don’t already have these benefits.”

Tester and grading committee member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, on Friday sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough asking him to exercise his own authority and expedite the issue. “For too long, government responses to certain cohorts of veterans have proven that the system of care for those affected by toxic exposures needs to be reformed,” the two wrote.

The measures come just days after McDonough, at a press conference, pledged to reexamine the link between exposure to chemical defoliants and hypertension.

Officials from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine have indicated that there is a likely connection between the two, but former VA executives said the evidence is not strong enough to justify the status of deemed disability benefits for all Vietnam veterans.

“People are often inclined to focus on cost first,” McDonough told reporters of his pending review of the matter. “I want to focus on the facts and the data first.”

At stake is up to $ 15 billion in new veterans disability awards over the next decade.

Generally, in order for veterans to receive disability benefits, they must prove that their ailments are directly related to injuries or illnesses directly resulting from their military service. In cases of toxic exposure, this usually means combing through military medical and service records, some of which have deteriorated or disappeared over decades.

However, due to the widespread use of the poisonous defoliant agent Orange during the Vietnam War, VA and Congress over the years have granted presumptive status to a long list of diseases linked to this exposure.

The distinction means veterans only need to prove that they contracted one of the diseases and served somewhere in the country during the fighting, without specific evidence of contact with the chemicals.

Last year, Congress added three new diseases to this alleged list: bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinson-like symptoms. VA officials are still studying the details of how this change will be implemented and when affected veterans will begin receiving payments.

This decision is expected to affect approximately 34,000 veterans. Almost five times as many people could be affected if high blood pressure were added to the list.

The tester said he was confident lawmakers could work with McDonough on a fix.

“The issue of toxic exposure in general is going to be a matter of high priority in the Senate,” he added. “And I think combustion pits, that stuff is going to be pretty high on the list as well.”

Democrats control the House, Senate and White House for the first time in 10 years. Tester said he doesn’t see any of the veterans’ issues as partisan, but he hopes his party’s control over Congress and the presidency will lead to faster action on the issues in this session.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on policies relating to military personnel and veterans. His work has earned him numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award, and the VFW News Media Award.