Friday, September 21, 2018

Former VA secretaries spar over ‘blue water’ Navy benefits

WASHINGTON — The fight over extending benefits to “blue water” veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam is now pitting former Veterans Affairs secretaries against each other, adding to the confusion over Congress’ next steps.
Last week, four former VA secretaries — Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson, James Peake and Bob McDonald — wrote to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee urging lawmakers not to grant presumptive illness status to roughly 90,000 blue water veterans who claim exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, saying there is insufficient proof for their cases.
“(This legislation) is based on what we believe to be inconclusive evidence to verify that these crews experience exposure to Agent Orange while their vessels were underway,” the group wrote. “We urge the committee to defer action … until such a study is completed and scientific evidence is established to expand presumptions to those at sea.”
The recommendation is in line with arguments laid out by current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie earlier this month. Department officials have argued that granting the presumptive status to veterans could upend the system by establishing new, non-scientific criteria for awarding benefits.
But advocates for the Vietnam veterans have argued that scientific proof of exposure is impossible given that proper sampling was not done decades ago, as the ships patrolled the waters around the South China Sea.
They say rare cancers and other unusual illnesses clustering among the blue water veterans should be enough to spur action from Congress.
Earlier this year, members of the House agreed. They overwhelmingly passed legislation that would require VA officials to automatically assume those veterans were exposed to Agent Orange for benefits purposes, the same status granted to troops who served on the ground in Vietnam or on ships traveling upon inland rivers.
Under current department rules, the blue water veterans can receive medical care for their illnesses through VA but must prove toxic exposure while on duty to receive compensation for the ailments. Advocates have argued that VA officials are systematically denying those claims.
In a letters to Wilkie and the committee this week, John Wells — counsel to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association — blasted the department’s stance as unfair and inhumane.
“Whether (the opposition) is due to bureaucratic intransigence or incompetence I do not know,” he wrote. “The bottom line, however, is that they have misrepresented and ‘cherry picked’ evidence to support their flawed position. That is a stain on the national honor.”

1 comment:

  1. I feel that it is a disgrace that we not acknowledge the service and sacrifice of our Veterans. The Vietnam era veterans are all but forgotten. Most of those who served are nearing the end of their lives and suffer from diseases that I feel are related to herbicide exposure. We continue to fight for benefits as they slowly die off. It is time for the VA to acknowledge their service and grant the benefits that they deserve.

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