Courtney: 'Clock is ticking' for Blue Water Navy vets in fight for VA benefits

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, is pushing the House to act on legislation that would restore access to VA benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other toxins during the Vietnam War.

Blue Water Navy veterans, those who served on ships in the territorial seas of Vietnam, are not eligible for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs related to Agent Orange or other herbicide exposure.

"The clock is ticking for these veterans," Courtney said by phone Wednesday.

Initially, Blue Water Navy vets were granted recognition and compensation from the VA under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which presumed certain diseases resulted from exposure to dioxins and other herbicide agents during military service in Vietnam.

In 2002, the VA reinterpreted the legislation to apply only to vets who served in the inland rivers or set foot in Vietnam, stripping Blue Water Navy vets of their coverage.

Since then, legislation in Congress has tried to restore coverage to these veterans with no success.

On Dec. 22, Courtney sent a letter, signed by more than 100 of his colleagues, to House Speaker Paul Ryan asking him to advance the latest legislative proposal, H.R. 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which would restore the presumption of service connection to the House floor for a vote. The bill is stalled in the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

"We cannot continue to kick this can down the road as the population of veterans is rapidly aging, and it's our duty to ensure they receive the benefits and health care they derive before it is too late," the letter says. It says thousands of Blue Water veterans are suffering from higher rates of diseases and chronic health conditions attributed to Agent Orange exposure.

To advance the bill, Ryan would have to waive the House's "Pay-As-You-Go" rule, which says that legislation that adds to the federal deficit has to be paid for with offsets, such as spending cuts or increased revenues. Courtney noted that the rule recently was waived for the tax reform bill "to the tune of $1.5 trillion."

The VA has said it would cost $5.5 billion over 10 years to provide benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans. VA officials have said there is a lack of scientific evidence that Blue Water Navy veterans were exposed to Agent Orange. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin announced on Nov. 1 that he's continuing to look at possible new presumptive conditions that may qualify for compensation for Agent Orange exposure, further delaying any decision on the matter.

j.bergman@theday.com

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