Veterans Affairs officials are confident they’ll be able to start processing “blue water” Vietnam veterans disability claims at the start of next year, but also acknowledged a tight timeline ahead for the training and technology work to get the department ready for those cases.
But House lawmakers expressed concerns that even minor hiccups in that work could mean significant delays for veterans who have already waited decades for their benefits.
“These people have waited too long, and we finally have the legislation in place,” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., ranking member on the House Veterans’ Affairs committee’s panel on disability assistance. “We need to get it done.”
In June, President Donald Trump signed into law legislation finalizing presumptive benefits status for “blue water” veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during the war there. Under VA rules, veterans who served on land in the war are presumed to have toxic exposure related to spraying of the defoliant known as Agent Orange during the war, but sailors on ships off the coast of Vietnam were not given the same concession.
Now, with the new law, as many as 90,000 veterans could be eligible for the new presumptive status and thousands of dollars a month in disability benefits.
But the legislation allowed VA officials to delay processing those cases until Jan. 1, 2020, even though some cases were already being considered due to a federal court ruling earlier in the year.
Advocates and some lawmakers have complained that the wait has put another unfortunate burden on veterans suffering from Agent Orange exposure for decades. On Wednesday, in an update hearing before the committee, VA Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations Willie Clark repeated that the delay was needed to get department systems in line for an expected flood of claims.
In the last few days, Veterans Benefits Administration officials have sent out letters to more than 77,000 veterans whose past disability claims connected to Agent Orange exposure have been denied. Those individuals will have to refile with the department next year if they want their cases reconsidered.
Clark said a ship locator tool to help claims processor verify veterans’ assignments during the war should be finished the first week in December. New training for those processors is scheduled to be finished by December 13. Eight regional processing offices will be assigned with handling the new cases to ensure consistency and efficiency in finishing the claims reviews.
"We are on track to begin awarding the benefits on Jan. 1.”
Lawmakers said they are hopeful but wary.
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va. and chairwoman of the disability assistance panel, questioned whether officials are scanning enough deck logs to ensure a complete look at veterans eligibility. She also echoed concerns from veterans advocates that individuals will have to navigate a confusing array of forms and other paperwork that will further delay benefits processing.
“Veterans feel the burden is always put upon them,” she said. “We want to make this as simple as possible for them instead.”
Other lawmakers voiced concerns that the department for now is not including submarines patrolling the waters, despite evidence sailors aboard would have been susceptible to the same toxic exposures.
Clark said officials are still troubleshooting those issues. He said benefits officials are committed to working with veterans to help them better understand the process, and prepared to make adjustments as needed. They will also prioritize cases of veterans more than 85 years old, and those facing terminal illnesses or financial hardship.
More information on filing for claims is available on the VA 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.