Vietnam Vets on Ships Won Fight for Presumptive Agent Orange Status
WASHINGTON—Blue Water Navy veterans who want to file disability claims related to Agent Orange exposure will have to wait until next year to have their claims processed, VA announced last month.
According to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, the delay is so that VA can have proper mechanisms in place to handle the claims, and that the influx of claims will not disrupt the disability claims process as a whole.
The memorandum from Wilkie, which orders a delay on processing through Jan. 1, 2020, has angered and disappointed veterans service organizations who have worked for decades to help Blue Water veterans—Vietnam-era veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia—gain presumption of Agent Orange exposure. The delay came less than a week after President Donald Trump signed into law legislation awarding presumptive benefits status to Blue Water veterans.
According to a statement released by VA, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act gives VA until Jan. 1 to begin deciding Blue Water Navy related claims. “By staying claims decisions until that date, VA is complying with the law that Congress wrote and passed,” it points out.
This stay applies both to claims that have yet to be filed and to those already filed at regional offices and to the Board of Veterans Appeals. In the meantime, Blue Water veterans are still encouraged to file benefits claims. According to VA, veterans older than 85 or with life-threatening illnesses will have priority. Still, however, those claims will not be processed until 2020.
This delay is the latest in a decadeslong roller-coaster of victories and defeats for Blue Water veterans and advocates—one which many thought was over with the signing of the legislation on June 26.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 provided a presumption of Agent Orange exposure for all veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. At the time, that included Blue Water veterans. However, in 2002, VA contested that the “Republic of Vietnam” does not extend to its coastal waters. That year it began denying benefits to Blue Water veterans that were based on Agent Orange presumption. Veterans advocates have been fighting to reverse that decision ever since.
In January of this year, they succeeded. A federal circuit judge ruled in Procopio vs. Wilkie that previous VA disability regulations regarding Agent Orange presumption should incorporate Blue Water Navy veterans. This past spring, Wilkie said that he would not recommend that the government appeal the decision, and, in June, the Department of Justice announced it was dropping the case.
This essentially provided a greenlight for Blue Water veterans to begin filing claims. The legislation signed later that month was Congress’s attempt to create a bulwark against future litigation. The law also extends presumption of Agent Orange exposure to veterans who served near Korea’s demilitarized zone and provides benefits to the children of Vietnam veterans who served in Thailand and were born with Spina bifida.
“Under Procopio, VA has the authority to swiftly grand claims today,” declared Vietnam Veterans of America President John Rowan in a letter to Wilkie. “In fact, VBA has had procedures in place to apply Procopio since June 4.”
For Vietnam-era veterans whose average age is 73 years old, a six-month delay can be significant.
“Time is of the essence, as a grant of benefits can mean life-saving healthcare,” Wells said. “The saying ‘delay, deny, and hope they die’ is the unfortunate reality for veterans and their families who continue to suffer from the lethal effects of Agent Orange.”
VA has always contended that extension of these benefits would result in a large influx of new claims and cost billions. The agency has estimated that as many as 560,000 Vietnam-era veterans may be considered Blue Water Navy veterans and that the cost of additional benefits could rise as high as $5.5 billion over the next decade.
Veterans advocates say that the total number of claimants will likely be around 90,000, and the Congressional Budget Office puts the cost at $1.1 billion over 10 years. Veterans who were previously denied for an Agent Orange-related presumptive condition can file a new claim, and survivors of deceased Blue Water Navy veterans may also file claims for benefits.
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