Lawmakers are urging Veterans Affairs officials to move ahead with some elderly “blue water” veterans’ disability benefits claims now instead of waiting until next year, saying in some cases the assistance cannot afford another delay.

Meanwhile, a group of advocates upset over the decision to hold off on paying those claims for another five months has filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding quicker action on the cases.

At issue is a decision earlier this month by VA officials to delay processing of claims from “blue water” Vietnam veterans — former sailors who served in ships off the coast of the country during the war — until January, as outlined under legislation passed by Congress earlier this summer.

VA officials said the extra time would allow officials to “ensure that we have the proper resources in place to meet the needs of our blue water Veteran community and minimize the impact on all veterans filing for disability compensation.”

On Tuesday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told attendees of the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Florida that “we are following the law passed by Congress” and already working on establishing clear processing guidelines for the new cases.

Under old rules — written and defended by the department — veterans who served on the ground or on ships close to shore during the Vietnam War were presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides. As a result, they are given special expedited status for their VA disability claims.

But individuals who served on ships at sea around the war zone were not granted that status until a federal court ruling in January. Congress codified that decision with legislation in following months, but some advocates argued that measure unfairly limited the court ruling.

Department officials have said as many as 560,000 Vietnam veterans may be covered under the new “blue water” veterans rules, but several veterans groups have called that figure an over exaggeration. They say fewer than 90,000 eligible veterans are alive today.

In a letter sent Tuesday, 12 Democrats from the House Veterans Affairs Committee — including Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif. — requested more information on work done so far on the “blue water” issue and asked for special consideration for older and ill veterans already making claims.

"While VA may exercise its right under the act to stay blue water claims (until January), we have questions about the decision to stay all claims without exception,” the group wrote. “As we know, some blue water veterans are suffering from debilitating illnesses related to herbicide exposure and cannot wait until January for assistance.

“We also know some veterans previously received disability benefits based on blue water service before VA changed course, cutting off those benefits. For these veterans, relief could be as easy as reinstating previously established service connection.”

The lawmakers said they are willing to work with the department to make resources and assistance available to speed the process.

The lawsuit, filed by Military Veterans Advocacy, is much less conciliatory. In the legal filing, group officials called the stay “unlawful” given the earlier court ruling and asked for the court to force VA into processing the claims immediately.

“It is unconscionable to create more delays and stumbling blocks for veterans whose health and longevity are at stake,” John Wells, executive director of MVA, said in a statement.

MVA officials moved ahead with the lawsuit after making similar demands of VA leadership in recent weeks, without any response.

VA officials have said that rushing thousands of new claims into the system could create larger problems for department case processing, potentially hurting not only the aging “blue water” veterans but also millions of others.

Veterans who served on ships patrolling near Vietnam who have contracted prostate cancer, Ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and several other serious illnesses may be eligible for the disability benefits. More information on the VA claims process for those cases is available on the department’s web site.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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