WASHINGTON – An effort to extend health benefits to about 90,000 sailors who served in Vietnam stalled again in the House – a blow to advocates who thought the measure would overcome a hurdle Thursday that it hasn’t in a years long fight.
The Department of Veterans Affairs already presumes ground troops who served in Vietnam and others who served in the country’s inland waterways were exposed to Agent Orange, a dioxin-laden herbicide that’s been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and other conditions. But the VA has denied the same health benefits for veterans who were on ships off the Vietnamese coast, known as “blue water” sailors.
Instead of advancing a bill that would extend benefits to blue water veterans to the House floor Thursday, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held off on it.
“I think it’s a major hit,” said John Wells, an attorney and director of the group Military-Veterans Advocacy, who has been fighting on behalf of blue water veterans since 2008. “It is terrible to think that partisan politics has intervened to deny coverage to 90,000 sick and dying veterans.”
The bill, HR 299, has bipartisan support and 317 cosponsors. But lawmakers have been unable to agree on how to pay for it.
Extending the benefits for 10 years would cost $1.1 billion, the Congressional Budget Office estimated.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, proposed paying for the benefits with a “round down,” which would round the cost-of-living adjustment on veterans’ disability checks to the nearest dollar amount. The measure would cost a veteran about $12 each year.
“We need to find a bipartisan path forward because blue water Navy veterans should not have to wait any longer,” Roe said.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the committee and a lead sponsor on the bill, argued the cost should not be offset by taking from other veterans.