WASHINGTON — As the year comes to a close, the fate of multiple big-ticket issues including health care and education benefits impacting thousands of service members and veterans remain uncertain with only a few legislative days left and federal employees eyeing Christmas vacation.
New Year’s kick-off for Blue Water claims
The Department of Veterans Affairs will start processing Agent Orange disability claims Jan. 1 for Blue Water Navy veterans though lawmakers are skeptical the VA will be ready.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said his department will work through the December holidays to prepare for a long roster of veterans claiming overdue benefits. Estimates range from 90,000 to more than 400,000 veterans could be entitled to Blue Water claims.
The Blue Water Navy Act of 2019, which was signed into law in June, states veterans aboard American vessels off Vietnam’s coast between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide, and might be entitled to disability benefits.
Suicide bill to expand care beyond VA
A House bill aimed to combat the crisis of veteran suicides by giving federal funds to programs outside the VA is expected to move forward despite some tense exchanges between lawmakers and the VA. There are multiple versions of the bill on the table, including a compromise from Republicans that aims to quell some concerns from Democrats. The VA estimates the program will cost $85 million for three years, but that amount could change.