‘It’s the cost of war’: lawmakers demand action on Blue Water Navy vets bill after collapse

Matt Saintsing
December 11, 2018 - 2:39 pm

US Navy Photo by Max Lonzanida

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With the chance to expand VA benefits to some 90,000 Blue Water Navy Vietnam vets imploding Monday night, lawmakers and advocates renewed efforts Tuesday to call on the Senate to finally pass the legislation. 

“Look we shouldn’t even be here today,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, at a meeting on Capitol Hill to drum up support for the bill. “This thing should have been cleared yesterday, and we should move forward. Taking care of our veterans is the cost of war.” 

H.R. 299, which would expand eligibility for VA disability payments and healthcare to Navy veterans who served aboard ships near Vietnam, passed the House unanimously in June, but has stalled in the Senate since. Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi objected to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-N.Y.) request for unanimous consent, citing budgetary concerns, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is looking for more evidence linking Blue Water Navy vets to Agent Orange exposure. 

RELATED: Why Sen. Enzi's delay of Blue Water Navy bill is bull$#%!

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has raised concerns over the bill’s cost and lack of a scientific consensus, but those reasons aren't persuading lawmakers and advocates who are working behind the scenes to pass the legislation.  

“We spend money on things that help farmers stay in business with a safety net, which I support. We spend money on infrastructure pieces like roads and bridges, which I support, but I’m going to tell you that none of that would be possible without the folks who served in the military,” Tester added. 

The Congressional Budget Office says the bill would likely cost just over $1 million. Regardless of its cost, however, some lawmakers are urging their colleagues to get their acts together and pass the bill before the end of the year. 

If it doesn’t clear the Senate before then, legislative efforts will have to start from scratch. 

“For the VA to today say ‘oh no your numbers were wrong, oh no we need more staff,’ do your job,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Tuesday. 

“Your job is to protect and to speak for our veterans, not to deny them basic healthcare that they have already earned. Shame on the VA, shame on the VA for trying to muddy the waters and say but we don’t have enough money.” 

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said he was “very disappointed to see this bill stall.” 

“This is about fairness, this is about justice and congressional intent,” he said. 

Congress originally included Blue Water Navy vets—those who served in the waters off the coast and near Vietnam—in the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which granted a presumption of exposure to anyone who earned the Vietnam Service Medal. 

But that changed in 2002 when the VA arbitrarily decided Vietnam vets had to have set foot on the ground to receive the benefits of Agent Orange exposure, leaving so-called Blue Water Navy veterans out to dry.

“Currently we have veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange on the ocean and who don’t receive the same benefits and care as veterans who were exposed on the land,” said Daines “Guess what? This is a land and sea problem.” 

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