WASHINGTON — Senate lawmakers will start their work next month on legislation to extend disability benefits for nearly 90,000 veterans who worked around toxic chemicals during the Vietnam War but have been denied compensation for that exposure.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is planning an Aug. 1 hearing on the issue, one that committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has called a “top priority” for the remainder of the year.
Last month, House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved legislation dealing with the plight of “blue water” Vietnam veterans, adding a new Veterans Affairs home loan fee to pay for the $1.1 billion needed to cover benefits costs.
Supporters of that measure had pushed for the Senate to quickly approve the measure, but Isakson has said he wants to hold public debate on the issue to ensure that lawmakers aren’t overlooking needed improvements to the proposal.
At issue are current VA regulations regarding veterans who served on ships off the coastline of Vietnam but never set foot in the country. Tens of thousands of those “blue water” veterans were exposed to Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants, which have led to rare cancers and other illnesses.
But under existing rules those veterans must provide proof of exposure to the chemicals to receive disability benefits. In contrast, troops who served on the mainland or patrolled inland rivers during the war are assumed to have been working with or near Agent Orange and are given special expedited status when filing disability benefits claims.
Lawmakers in recent years pushed to fix the oversight, but struggled with how to cover the costs. The compromise reached last month would add a new fee to veterans’ home loans that would cost a typical buyer about $350 over 10 years.
But nearly half of all borrowers — including disabled veterans — will be exempt from the fee.
The House-passed bill also extends presumptive exposure status to veterans who served in the Korean Peninsula Demilitarized Zone beginning in September 1967 and lasting until August 1971, the same end date for the Vietnam War.
And the measure makes several additional changes to the VA home loan program, including eliminating the cap on loans department officials can offer.
Senate lawmakers have expressed general support for the measure but thus far have been focused on the confirmation process for VA secretary nominee Robert Wilkie. That work is expected to be completed later this month.
Isakson said he hopes to move forward on the “blue water” fix in coming months but has not given a timeline on when the process may be completed. If the measure is signed into law, veterans will still likely have a months-long wait before VA officials establish procedures and rules for paying out the new benefits.
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.