The final legal battle for Blue Water Navy veterans to get VA disability benefits for exposure to cancer-causing Agent Orange appears to be over.
More than 90,000 veterans who could have been exposed to the toxin during the Vietnam War are now in line for disability benefits from the Veterans Administration after the Justice Department dropped its appeal of a federal court decision from earlier this year.
Procopio v. Wilkie reversed a 1997 VA decision to deny that so-called "Blue Water" veterans were exposed to Agent Orange while serving in the waters off Vietnam. The Procopio decision ruled that the VA should presume those sailors were exposed to the toxic chemical at some point during their service, and grant them the same benefits their ground troop comrades qualify for.
The Supreme Court granted the DoJ several extension to appeal the lower court ruling. The extension did not prevent the VA from beginning to accept Blue Water veterans' requests for benefits, however, and Congress took steps to extend disability benefits to some of those veterans, even if DoJ appealed.
Blue Water veterans and their advocates have been handed what appears to be their final legal victory, now that DoJ has said it won't appeal or argue to overturn Procopio, according to a filing with the Supreme Court.In a joint statement Tuesday night, House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., and ranking member Dr. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., reacted to the DoJ's decision not to appeal:
"We are encouraged by DoJ's decision not to appeal Procopio and further delay benefits to our Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans. It's now up to the Senate to finally right this wrong and pass H.R. 299."
Roe and Takano's Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act passed the House unanimously before Memorial Day but has yet to see floor time in the Senate.
The bill would unequivocally grant benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans who served in the waters off of Vietnam, in a designated geographic area. That designation has drawn criticism from some Blue Water advocacy groups and veterans, saying it could exclude some Blue Water vets by setting geographic limits.
“This is a huge victory for tens of thousands of deserving veterans who were arbitrarily stripped of their earned benefits,” said VFW national commander B.J. Lawrence. “Now we need the Senate to quickly pass H.R. 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs can never again interpret the intent of law differently.”
The court decision, absent DoJ's appeal now, should stand as the final word on Blue Water Navy veterans' eligibility for disability benefits at the VA -- whether the federal legislation passes or not.
“The VFW is very glad this case is now over,” Lawrence said. “Now we can focus on getting H.R. 299 passed into law to protect VA benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans and expand much-needed benefits for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Thailand and the Korean DMZ, as well as continue research on Gulf War illnesses.”
VA leaders in the past have estimated it could cost more than $5 billion over 10 years to provide VA benefits to Blue Water veterans, though Congressional budget officials say the amount is closer to $1 billion. VA officials said in the past they believed the court decision should stand and the veterans should be awarded the disability benefits.
A full list of the diseases the VA presumes are associated with Agent Orange exposure can be found here.
Blue Water veterans previously denied Agent Orange exposure-related benefits can get help from the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 855-333-0677. For more information, click here.
“Finally, justice for many of the Blue Water Vietnam veterans who have waited long enough to be granted the disability benefits they need and deserve based on their exposure to Agent Orange,” said NVLSP executive director Bart Stichman. “We hope now that all parties involved will move expeditiously to give these veterans the long-overdue disability benefits they rightfully deserve.”