WASHINGTON–Blue Water Navy veterans who claim to be impacted by toxic exposure while serving off the coast of Vietnam were forced to grapple with disappointment once again as the 115th Congress ended without passing legislation addressing their VA benefits.

This came after the measure passed the House; legislators were optimistic that it would get to a vote on the Senate floor. Concerns about the budget and the science behind Agent Orange exposure, both backed by objections from VA officials, led a handful of senators to block the bill from a quick floor vote before the end of the legislative year, however.

Veterans who served in the inland waterways of Vietnam–sometimes called Brown Water veterans–are already presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange, which helps fast-track their claims for exposure-related illnesses such as heart disease, Parkinson’s, type 2 diabetes, and a long list of cancers. Veterans advocates have been fighting for years to have that same presumption extended to veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam.

When Congress passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991, which gave this presumption to veterans, Blue Water veterans were included. VA later stipulated that service on a deep water ship off the coast did not, by itself, meet the requirements. A court case in 2008 upheld VA’s decision, sparking a decade-long fight to re-extend that presumption to Blue Water veterans.

Sen. Michael Enzi (R-WY) cited budget concerns in his refusal to support bringing the bill to a quick vote. He referred to a, Congressional Budget Office released a revised budget estimate for the House bill after it was passed in response to an increased estimate in the number of veterans who would benefit from the bill, explaining,. “According to the CBO, the bill would cost at least $1.3 billion more than the original estimate. The VA’s analysis shows the cost could be nearly five times what Congress assumed it was when the House passed it. The bill’s sponsors have paid for their cost estimates by increasing home loan fees for veterans, but that doesn’t offset the true cost of the bill.”

Waiting for a Study

The other concern that kept the bill from a quick floor vote came from Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who said he was concerned about the uncertain science behind exposure of Blue Water veterans. Lee said that he wanted to wait for a study due from VA in late 2019–the Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study, which VA officials say includes data from 43,000 Vietnam-era veterans, including nearly 1,000 Blue Water veterans. Previous studies on Blue Water veterans’ exposure have been inconclusive.

Both objections were backed by a letter sent in September by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who supported the bill. Using inconclusive science to create a new statutory presumption would essentially treat this group of veterans differently than other veterans whose benefits are held to a higher standard of evidence, Wilkie said in the letter. “[It would be treating] different groups of veterans disparately without any reasoned basis for doing so. If we do not allow standards in these cases, there is a greater chance that such policies will spread to other agencies in the federal government.”

Members of the House who championed the bill quickly dismissed these concerns. “For over three decades, we as a legislative body have tried to come some resolution as to how these men and women should be treated,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), who served as the House VA Committee Chair before handing that seat over to Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA.) in January. “The science is not great–the presumption and cause and effect. But it’s time to move past that. [Also] it seemed that every time we found a way to pay for it, another roadblock went up. I feel very comfortable about this bill being fully funded. We’re this close to solving a decades-old problem. If we wait long enough it won’t matter, because they’ll all be gone.”

Wasting little time, Roe and Takano introduced the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, which mirrors the bill passed unanimously in the House last year.

 “The fact that politics got in the way of our duty to care for veterans affected by toxic exposure is a disservice to the 90,000 Navy veterans who served in the coastal waters of Vietnam,” Takano declared. “I am committed to working in a bipartisan manner to ensure this remains a top priority for this new Congress. It’s time we right this wrong.” After the vote, Veterans Services Groups also expressed disappointment. Disabled American Veterans (DAV) said in a statement that is is “deeply disappointed that the bipartisan efforts of Senators Isakson, Tester, Gillibrand and Daines–supported by the vast majority of their colleagues–to finally pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act were blocked last night in the Senate. “