A recent court order could give up to 15,000 Vietnam veterans previously denied disability benefits an average of $28,000 in backdated payouts, but federal officials could still yet try to appeal the ruling in coming weeks.
Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled in favor of thousands of “blue water” Navy veterans and their survivors who had charged they are being wrongly denied benefits as part of a deal reached by Congress last year.
Under that plan, the Department of Veterans Affairs was required to grant presumptive benefit status for chemical defoliant exposure to veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during that war. Advocates for years had lamented that VA required direct proof of exposure that was difficult to obtain decades after veterans' tours on ships.
Since the start of the year, VA has been processing those claims, granting new benefits to more than 24,000 veterans and survivors by the start of October.
But the new law did not automatically require VA officials to go back and review cases denied before 2020. Veterans who reapplied for benefits could have their cases considered again, but officials from the National Veterans Legal Services Program argued that all of the cases should be resurfaced and reviewed by VA benefits offices.
“These veterans and their surviving family members have already been waiting years for benefits to which they are entitled,” Bart Stichman, executive director of NVLSP, said in a statement.
In an interview with Military Times last week, Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence said no decision has been made by VA and Department of Justice officials on an appeal.
However, he did note that the lawsuit was discussed as part of VA’s preparations for the new benefits processing at the start of this year. If the decision stands — either upon further appeal or if the government opts to simply accept the latest ruling — Lawrence said he is confident the department can begin reviewing those cases without any significant disruption to operations.
“We’ve done some of the behind the scenes processing, tagging of files and things like that,” he said. “So if this does become the law of the land, there will be some legwork, but it will not be something we hadn’t thought about before.”
VA has already paid out about $700 million in retroactive benefits related to the “blue water” veterans benefits this year. NVLSP officials estimate the new group could add more than $400 million in additional payouts.
For more information on the lawsuit, visit the NVLSP 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.