Veterans advocates were unhappy Thursday the Senate easily passed a bill the activists say will actually deny benefits to thousands the measure was designed to help.
The Blue Water Veterans Act passed by voice vote in the Senate on Wednesday night and now only requires the president’s signature to become law.
The bill aims to extend Department of Veterans Affairs disability benefits to thousands of “blue water” Vietnam War Navy veterans who say they were exposed to toxic chemicals while serving off the coast of Vietnam.
They could receive between $1,200 to $1,700 a month. The actual amount would depend on a veteran’s level of disability.
If signed, the law will take effect at the beginning of 2020. At that time, lawyers representing the “blue water” veterans and their veterans’ association argue that many could be ineligible for benefits because they would not meet the new law’s criteria.
The bill uses geographic coordinates to draw a line in the ocean around Vietnam. If a U.S. ship operated within that line, then the veterans aboard that ship would be eligible for disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The line will insure that over 80,000 veterans will receive the benefits, But John Wells, the director of the Military Veterans Advocacy group and lawyer representing the veterans, said 20,000 to 50,000 additional veterans who served on ships beyond the line will not be eligible.
“We’re disappointed,” Wells said, adding that his law team and the Blue Water Navy Veterans’ Association tried to tell lawmakers that the bill could block coverage for some veterans.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which helped write the bill, found the veterans could not produce enough evidence to show that thousands would miss out on disability coverage.
Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the top Republican on the committee, said in a statement that he was “thrilled” by the bills passage through the Senate.
Roe was joined by several other lawmakers who said they were pleased by the bill’s passage and looked forward to the president’s signature.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was “very happy” about the passage of the bill, but said he was “unaware” of any possibility that the bill could deny coverage for some veterans.
In January a federal court ruling required the VA to give benefits to “blue water” veterans. That case was filed against the VA by Alfred Procopio, a “blue water” Navy veteran. The VA and the Department of Justice could have appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, but their lawyers announced last week that they would not.
Wells, who argued on behalf of the “blue water” veterans in federal court, said that the ruling permitted disability benefits for veterans who served well beyond the line drawn by lawmakers. Wells said the court ruling already provided for disability benefits for the “blue water” veterans and that the bill wasn’t needed.
“This bill did not add coverage for one veteran,” Wells said. “Everyone who has coverage under the bill already had coverage under Procopio. The only thing (the bill) did was try to close the door on a pathway to extend past the territorial sea. In all honesty, the bill was not needed and it has actually done us harm.”
Until 2020, Wells said, the Procopio ruling is law, so he’s encouraging “blue water” veterans who served beyond the line to apply for benefits before the new year. He said he hopes that those veterans already with benefits will be included under the new law.
It’s unclear if President Donald Trump plans to sign the bill. The White House has not responded to a request for comment.
Many “blue water” veterans have been barred from receiving Department of Veterans Affairs disability benefits since 2002 because they never set foot on the Vietnamese mainland, but stayed offshore on Navy ships.
Many suffer from diseases that are often linked to exposure to several of the toxic chemicals, like Agent Orange, and feel that they should receive the same benefits as other veterans who were exposed to the toxins.