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WASHINGTON — For the second time in as many years, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill that could make tens of thousands of Navy vets and their survivors eligible for benefits stemming from exposure to Agent Orange while serving in waters off Vietnam.
The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act has been championed in the House by Representative Joe Courtney, who saw a similar bill approved in the House unanimously last year only to wither away in the Senate without a vote.
The bill, which had 333 co-sponsors including the entire Connecticut delegation, was approved 410-0 on Tuesday. It would clarify that VA disability benefits provided to Vietnam Veterans based on a presumption they were exposed to Agent Orange include veterans who served on ships that patrolled the Vietnam waterways as well as those who served in the Korean demilitarized zone.
On the House floor Tuesday, leaders of the House Veterans Affairs Committee from both sides of the aisle challenged the Senate to act swiftly on behalf of the Vietnam veterans who are dying at a rate of 525 each day, they said.
“This proposal is the quickest route to delivering benefits to those deserving veterans. They have waited long enough,” said Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., who chairs the VA committee.
“We need to get it to the Senate and I believe the chairman and I would like to challenge the Senate to start hearing this and perhaps vote on it before Memorial Day. I think that would be the right thing to do,” said Representative Phil Roe of Tennessee, the ranking Republican.
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced similar legislation in the Senate in February called the “Agent Orange Exposure Fairness Act.”
Takano praised the efforts of Courtney in gathering support for the legislation and noted that he would have spoken Tuesday but was absent to due an illness.
“The gentleman from Connecticut has been a steadfast advocate for the blue water Navy veterans and veterans in his district. And I want to express my gratitude to him for pushing the Veterans Affairs Committee to right this wrong,” he said.
Since 2002, only Vietnam War veterans serving within the land boundaries of Vietnam were presumed to have health conditions resulting from chemical exposure Agent Orange. The bill expands the presumption to cover those who served aboard Navy ships in Vietnam.
The issue is also in the courts.
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a 9-2 decision in Procopio v. Wilkie that found the Veterans Affairs department had improperly denied benefits claims to blue water Navy veterans. The Justice Department is still considering whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie recently said he supports the ruling that would allow blue water Navy veterans to receive disability benefits for diseases presumed to be associated with Agent Orange exposure including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and various types of cancer. The disability benefits could cost VA more than $1 billion over 10 years, according to estimates.