The “blue water” Vietnam veterans benefits act is now law.
Late Tuesday night, President Donald Trump signed the legislation, which grants presumptive status for disability benefits to an estimated 90,000 Navy veterans who served in the seas around Vietnam during the war.
Unlike their fellow service members stationed on the ground and on inland waterways, those veterans faced additional paperwork barriers to prove exposure to toxic defoliants during their deployments, even after developing identical serious cancers and respiratory illnesses.
"Instead of providing adequate care to our veterans who have fought and suffered for their country, government officials who have the power to provide them with care are needlessly debating a settled issue and placing the onus on veterans to prove that they were harmed. America owes our veterans a debt, and we are failing in our duty to pay that debt."
Advocates had long complained that put an unfair burden on the aging veterans, since water monitoring records from decades ago were inaccessible or non-existent. The higher proof of exposure blocked most so-called “blue water” veterans from eligibility for benefits, which can total several thousand dollars a month.
A federal appeals court in January overturned Veterans Affairs officials’ policy of denying the Navy veterans claims, and lawmakers followed in subsequent months with a legislative fix to reinforce the legal ruling.
Last week, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said during a Senate hearing that even before passage of the new legislation, department staff have already begun processing the claims.
“We are working with the Department of Defense and the Department of Navy to make sure that we have those adequate lists (of eligible veterans),” he said. “I cannot tell you now the numbers. I can tell you we are working on them. I will promise to come back to (Congress) if we need additional resources.”
The new law will pay for the presumptive benefits change — expected to total $1.1 billion over 10 years — with a new fee on certain VA home loans. Disabled veterans will be exempt from the extra cost.
In addition to the Navy Vietnam veterans, the legislation also expands presumptive disability benefits to troops who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and to children of herbicide-exposed Thailand veterans born with spina bifida.
The decision could affect up to 90,000 veterans who have been petitioning VA officials for disability payouts for years.
Numerous veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, have praised Congress for the action.
However, John Wells, retired Navy commander and the executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy (which helped file the blue water lawsuit), has criticized the legislation in recent weeks for potentially limiting the scope of veterans affected by adopting a different definition of the area covered than the court ruling.
He said his group will continue lobbying Congress to add those veterans as well.