VA officials rip 'Blue Water' Agent Orange bill, urges Senate to sink it
Department of Veterans Affairs officials say they strongly oppose passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 299), which would extend Agent Orange disability benefits and health care to between 70,000 and 90,000 veterans who served aboard ships in territorial waters off Vietnam during the war, and today suffer ailments associated with herbicides sprayed across its jungles for years.
The Blue Water Navy bill passed the House unanimously in late June and seemed certain to fly through the Senate, given reports of close coordination on the bill between veterans' affairs committees, and the House having negotiated a plan to pay for the benefits with major veteran service organizations.
On Wednesday, however, with Robert Wilkie installed two days earlier as VA secretary, his undersecretary for benefits, Paul R. Lawrence, delivered a blistering attack on the Blue Water Navy bill, and on a proposal to test providing routine dental care to veterans, during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
Lawrence testified that there's still no credible scientific evidence to support extending Agent Orange-related benefits to shipboard personnel who never went ashore in Vietnam or patrolled its rivers. Without such evidence, he said, it would be wrong, and would create a disastrous precedent, to award VA benefits.
"This committee set the standard to use science to be fair and consistent in cases such as this," said Lawrence, referring to the Agent Orange Act of 1991. "Once that standard is removed from the equation, it becomes nearly impossible to adjudicate a claim of this type on the merits. The resulting lower threshold sets in motion the prospect of uncontrolled demands for [VA] support."
Lawrence, who took charge of veteran benefit programs in May, warned that if HR 299 is enacted, it will "be referenced when other exposure claims are presented to this committee. At that point, Congress will be under greater pressure to accommodate these requests too, regardless of the evidence."
It wasn't immediately clear what damage Lawrence and his top official on post-deployment health issues, Dr. Ralph Erickson, inflicted on the popular Blue Water Navy bill. A majority of senators on the committee still spoke in favor.
But the Trump administration has reversed signals of support that a beleaguered VA Secretary, David Shulkin, gave Blue Water advocates in March.
VA for years had opposed the legislation. The usual hardline softened a year after Shulkin became President Trump's first VA Secretary when he told Rep. David Valado (R-Ga.), lead sponsor of the House bill, "that these veterans have waited too long and this is a responsibility that this country has."
Shulkin noted that VA lacked scientific evidence that shipboard personnel were exposed to dioxin. But he said his staff was "working hard to look at offsets" – cuts to other parts of the VA budget to pay for Blue Water Navy benefits.
"And it is a high priority for us," he added.
Two weeks later Shulkin was fired, deepening a leadership vacuum at VA caused by political chaos at the White House. Trump initially nominated his White House physician, a Navy admiral, to replace Shulkin. The choice soon fell victim to controversy. The House, meanwhile, passed its Blue Water Navy bill after the veterans affairs committee negotiated with major veterans organizations a way to pay for it, by raising user fees modestly on VA guaranteed home loans.
Robert Wilkie became VA Secretary this past Monday. By Wednesday, there was no trace of the accommodating tone on the Blue Water Navy issue that Shulkin had expressed months earlier. Lawrence scorched the bill and its "pay for" plan.
"VA is opposed to paying for the provisions of this bill by increasing the cost that some veterans must pay to access their [home loan] benefits. Veterans will either have to finance the VA funding fee with interest, or pay up front with cash. This means fewer veterans will buy homes or [will] buy homes using non-VA options, potentially opening them to predator lenders," Lawrence said.
He further argued that opening Agent Orange benefits to thousands more veterans would stunt ongoing efforts to reduce the backlog of compensation claims on appeal, adding time and cost to claim processes.
In written testimony, Lawrence gave fresh estimates on the cost of the Blue Water Navy bill, at total of almost $7 billion over the first 10 years. Some senators pushed back at his attack on the bill, arguing it wouldn't be needed if VA didn't set a high bar for these Navy veterans to gain benefits for conditions on VA's list of 14 ailments linked to Agent Orange.
Erickson told senators most of the ailments presumed to be caused by Agent Orange also are tied to aging, therefore VA needs evidence of dioxin exposure for ships at sea. He said a Blue Water Navy review conducted by the Institute of Medicine in 2011 failed to find sufficient evidence of dioxin exposure.
He and Lawrence dismissed an oft-cited Australian study that was the scientific foundation for that government to award Agent Orange-related benefits to its shipboard veterans. That study, said Lawrence, was based on an experiment involving distillation of water with presumed levels of dioxin near to shore. It was U.S. Navy policy to take on water for shipboard use more than 12-miles out to sea, to avoid contaminants, Erickson explained.
Rick Weidman, with Vietnam Veterans of America, made the strongest case in support of Blue Water veterans. VA officials have misinterpreted the 2011 study, which did find it plausible that shipboard veterans were exposed to dioxin. Given that Congress already presumes veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam were exposed, and doesn't try to calculate level of exposure, that benefit of the doubt should be applied to shipboard personnel too, Weidman said.
"How much [exposure] makes no difference," he said. "You don't know [the] difference for folks who served in the delta versus the central highlands where I served. Who knows? And you can't put it together 40 years later."
VA's hardline appears to leave Senate Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) in a tough spot. Veteran service organizations and leaders of the House Veterans Affairs Committee thought Isakson was set to endorse the bill and shepherd it swiftly toward enactment.
At the hearing, however, Isakson said "we have more work to do on these issues."
He promised the committee would work "deliberately" to understand all facets of the Blue Water bill, including whether the House plan to raise VA home loans fees was enough to pay for it. Isakson asked Lawrence whether charging non-disabled veterans an extra $250 on every $100,000 in loan value would cover the cost of extending Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans.
"Not in our opinion, no," said Lawrence. Isakson nodded agreement.
"I did real estate sales my entire life," Isakson said. "A lot of VA loans, FHA loans. You can make those numbers look like a lot of things. That is not a lot of money" if VA home loan fees are raised, as the House voted, from 2.25 percent of loan amounts to 2.4 percent, for veterans with active duty service. "It's variable too, and depends on number of loans that actually are closed" in any year, he said.
It seems the Blue Water Navy bill will be adrift in uncertainty for at least several more months, its future dependent on how Senate leaders react to stiffened resistance from the Trump administration.