House members moved Wednesday to accelerate extending disability benefits to "blue water" Vietnam veterans and expand eligibility to more troops, including those who served in the Korean demilitarized zone in the late 1960s.
A bill proposed by the House Veterans Affairs Committee would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide disability compensation for veterans who served on Navy ships off Vietnam and have been diagnosed with one of 14 diseases presumed related to Agent Orange exposure.
The bill, H.R. 299, now goes to the House for a vote. Members of the Senate, meanwhile, are considering similar legislation proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York.
The legislation delineates the affected geographic regions off the coast, adds eligibility to troops who served in the Korean DMZ between September 1967 and 1971, and requires the VA to identify U.S. bases in Thailand where the defoliant Agent Orange was used.
It also would extend benefits to children of veterans who have spina bifida as a result of a parent who was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Thailand.
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A federal court ruled in January that the VA wrongly denied disability benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans. The decision in favor of the defendant, Alfred Procopio Jr., who served on the aircraft carrier Intrepid in Vietnam and later was diagnosed with diabetes and prostate cancer, potentially extends health care benefits and compensation to thousands of similarly diagnosed veterans.
VA officials had denied the claims of Procopio and ship-based sailors and Marines, saying the scientific research does not support a connection between their service and exposure to Agent Orange. The cost of extending the benefits to roughly 90,000 potentially affected veterans would be as much as $5 billion over 10 years, the VA noted.
Lawmakers said Wednesday that legislation is needed to protect veterans who may be eligible for disability compensation. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the department will not appeal the ruling in the federal case, but House members said they wanted to make sure the ruling is applied.
"We need to ensure that blue water veterans are protected in the event that Procopio is appealed," said committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-California. "This proposal is the clearest and quickest route to delivering benefits to these deserving veterans."
Last year, the House unanimously approved a Blue Water Navy veterans bill, but the legislation died in the Senate when a vote was blocked in the final days of the last Congress.
"It's unclear how the VA plans to implement the Procopio decision. This [bill] would help remove any confusion over which veterans served in offshore in Vietnam. It would also help veterans who exposed outside of Vietnam," said Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the committee.
Veterans who served in the Vietnam War receive health care and disability compensation if they have been diagnosed with one of several illnesses presumed to be connected to exposure to Agent Orange and other defoliants.
This compensation is usually awarded to those who served on the ground and inland waterways of Vietnam. But blue water veterans -- those who served in ships up to 12 miles off the coast -- weren't considered to have been exposed.
The veterans and their advocates have argued, however, that those troops were exposed because their ships used runoff-contaminated seawater in their desalination plants and vessels transported Agent Orange to the war zone.
The federal ruling allows former service members diagnosed with any of the presumptive illnesses related to Agent Orange to bypass a lengthy claims process that required them to provide proof that they were exposed.
Wilkie said the VA is considering how to award and pay for benefits for these veterans.