Lawmakers voted 382-0 in favor of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which must go to the Senate for final approval. It provides eligibility for disability compensation to "Blue Water" Navy veterans -- those sailors aboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and other ships who contend they were exposed to Agent Orange through the ships' water systems. The dioxin-laden herbicide has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson's disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions.
"Every day, thousands of brave veterans who served in the Vietnam War fight the health effects of Agent Orange exposure," said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., the bill's lead sponsor. "It is far past time we pass this critical legislation and give them the comfort and care they deserve."
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the legislation would correct a "long-standing injustice."
A VA policy decision in 2002 stripped Blue Water Navy veterans of their eligibility for compensation, unless they could prove they set foot in Vietnam. Bills were introduced in 2011, 2013 and 2015 to address the problem, but progress stalled because of cost concerns.
Extending the benefits for 10 years would cost $1.1 billion, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. To make up the cost, the legislation raises fees for servicemembers and veterans who use the VA's home loan program. The increase amounts to between $2.14 and $2.95 each month.
"It has taken years of dedicated advocacy and bipartisanship to get us here today," Takano said. "Finding over $1 billion in the federal budget is not an easy task. The solution in this bill is fair."