Department of Veterans Affairs officials say they strongly oppose passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 299), which would extend Agent Orange disability benefits and health care to between 70,000 and 90,000 veterans.
The legislation would give coverage to service members who served aboard ships in territorial waters off Vietnam during the war and today suffer ailments associated with herbicides sprayed across its jungles for years.
The Blue Water Navy bill passed the House unanimously in late June and seemed certain to fly through the Senate, given reports of close coordination on the bill between veterans’ affairs committees, and the House having negotiated a plan to pay for the benefits with major veteran service organizations.
On Wednesday, however, with Robert Wilkie installed two days earlier as VA secretary, his undersecretary for benefits, Paul R. Lawrence, delivered a blistering attack on the Blue Water Navy bill, and on a proposal to test providing routine dental care to veterans, during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
Lawrence testified that there’s still no credible scientific evidence to support extending Agent Orange-related benefits to shipboard personnel who never went ashore in Vietnam or patrolled its rivers. Without such evidence, he said, it would be wrong, and would create a disastrous precedent, to award VA benefits.