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U.S. Reps. Joe Courtney and John Larson (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of Navy vets and their survivors could soon be eligible for benefits stemming from exposure to Agent Orange while serving in waters off Vietnam decades ago.

The Senate on Wednesday approved the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act on a voice vote, sending it to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The bill clarifies 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.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal issued a statement after Wednesday’s vote thanking veterans for speaking out on the issue.

“I am deeply grateful to the Blue Water Navy veterans who spoke out in town halls, who traveled to Washington, and who kept on pressing for action. I wish we had acted sooner,” Blumenthal said.

Rep. Joe Courtney, who has been working for nearly a decade on the bill, applauded the Senate for passing the bill to make right what he says has been a disservice to the veterans.

“Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans have been denied benefits that they deserve for 17 years. They’ve been forced to endure the long-lasting effects of Agent Orange — complications like Type 2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer, and Parkinson’s disease— and to do so without receiving the benefits they’ve rightfully earned while serving our country during the Vietnam War,” he said. “The debt we owe to these men and women for their service and for the subsequent obstruction can never be repaid, but we owe it to Blue Water veterans and their families to ensure we do right by them moving forward.”

The bill, which was introduced by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takanao, D-Calif., had 333 co-sponsors including the entire Connecticut delegation. The House unanimously approved it last month.

In 1991, Congress passed a law requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide presumptive coverage to all Vietnam veterans with illnesses that the Institute of Medicine has directly linked to Agent Orange exposure, including those who were stationed on ships off the Vietnamese coast, also known as Blue Water Navy veterans. But starting in 2002, the VA interpreted the law to mean that only Vietnam War veterans serving within the land boundaries of Vietnam were presumed to have health conditions resulting from chemical exposure Agent Orange.

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.

Key Provisions

The bill restores the presumptive coverage for those who served offshore Vietnam and lifts the burden from the individual veteran to prove direct exposure to Agent Orange.

The bill extends presumption of Agent Orange exposure to certain veterans who served in or near the Korean demilitarized zone.

The bill also provides benefits to children of Vietnam veterans who served in Thailand and were born with spina bifida.