The Department of Veterans Affairs was on track to clear a longstanding backlog of veterans’ disability claims, its secretary said, but the addition of newly eligible Vietnam-era veterans may overwhelm the system.
“We are about to add tens of thousands of new beneficiaries to the claims system,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said during a stop Thursday at the Salem VA Medical Center. “I’ve seen estimates that go anywhere from 70,000 to 400,000.”
A federal appeals court in January ruled that Vietnam veterans who served on ships off the shores of Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange. With that ruling comes the presumption that the chemical defoliant caused any of an array of diseases. Affected servicemen, called Blue Water Navy veterans, are entitled to medical care and disability payments.
Wilkie said the VA is working with the Department of Defense to figure out how many veterans are eligible.
“The original metric was to use the Vietnam service ribbon, but the way the Navy worked during those days is if you were attached to the ship’s company and the ship traversed the waters, you got a ribbon. But there may be a third of the crew back in Bremerton, Washington, that didn’t deploy for whatever reason and they got a ribbon as well,” he said. “So we have to do a lot of detective work along with the Navy, and it’s going to take us some time.”
Estimates of the potential costs of disability benefits for the Blue Water Navy veterans range between $1.1 billion and $5.5 billion over 10 years. The range depends on the number of veterans and whether their children and estates will be eligible to file claims.