Lawmakers and veterans advocates are split on how much to worry about the costs of expanding eligibility for disability benefits for some Vietnam-era veterans in the wake of a recent federal court decision.
The trigger was a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit decision (Procopio v. Wilkie, Fed. Cir., 913 F.3d 1371, 1/29/19) in January that said veterans who served on deep water ships off the coast of Vietnam are entitled to a presumption of benefits under the Agent Orange Act of 1991 (Public Law 102-4). The decision gave a win to the former members of the Navy who had fought for years to rectify a Department of Veterans Affairs decision limiting the presumption standard to those who had “boots on the ground.”
The Justice Department has until the end of this month to a make final decision about whether to seek a review of Procopio v. Wilkie by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it appears increasingly likely the decision will stand after VA Secretary Robert Wilkie recommended to DOJ to not challenge it.
The decision will have implications for lawmakers who have been trying to resolve the issue for the veterans, often referred to as the Blue Water Navy for their service aboard coastal water ships as opposed to murky, inland water ways. While the court ruled the veterans had been wrongly denied benefits due them, funding the expansion of services needed to include about 95,000 newly eligible vets could be expensive and could also affect the chances of other exposed veterans being made eligible for similar treatment.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has recommended the government not challenge a federal court decision expanding eligibility for Agent Orange-related benefits to Vietnam-era service members who served on coastal ships.
“They are going to need some funding,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Chairman of the Senate Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, said in an interview.