Lack of Confidence

“Only through a Freedom of Information Act request did Congress learn that OMB ‘lacks confidence’ in NAM’s scientific evidence and has concerns with the budgetary effects of extending these presumptions,” the letter states. “Frankly, you need to do your job. No more excuses.”

Regardless of whether those conditions are added to the presumptive list before Jan. 1, VA is confident it will be ready to handle the new claims. Testifying before the House VA Disability Assistance Subcommittee last month, VBA Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations Willie Clark said that the agency is using the time given by the stay to train its staff and create new tools to help it identify veterans covered under the new legislation.

The most important of those tools, Clark said, is the Ship Locator Tool—a computerized archive that will allow claims developers to search Navy records to see whether a veteran served on a ship that came within 12 nautical miles of the coast of Vietnam. The creation of this tool involves scanning deck logs, which track a ship’s location as it moves through the water. VA is currently scanning deck log records from more than 1,800 ships that were in the area of Vietnam during the conflict—amounting to in excess of 28 million records. As of the beginning of November, VA was scanning approximately 1 million documents a day and expected to have the process completed by early December.

“This tool will mitigate risks associated with developing these cases and enable claims processors to shave months off the normal development time,” Clark told the subcommittee.

He noted that the Ship Locator Tool will not be used to deny claims but will only act as a speedier way for claims developers to “get to a yes.” If a veteran’s presence off the coast of Vietnam cannot be confirmed through a deck log, other records will be searched and additional evidence taken into account.

“But we believe the Ship Locator Tool will address the lion’s share of claims coming in,” Clark said.

In addition to new digital tools, VA will begin specialized training for claims developers during the first two weeks of December. The two days of training will be limited to individuals at eight regional offices who have considerable experience working retroactive aspects of Agent Orange claims, Clark explained.

Veterans who believe they’re eligible for benefits under the provisions of the Blue Water Navy Act will need to submit a new claim. Approximately 70,000 Blue Water Navy veterans have previously filed claims and been denied. VBA began sending letters to veterans and surviving spouses in early November with instructions on how to file a new claim.

“I am confident that awarding these claims will begin on January 1,” Clark declared. “And VA is committed to providing priority processing for claims of veterans who are homeless, experiencing financial hardship, terminally ill, or are 85 and older.”