Torpedoing the Navy Veterans Agent Orange Bill

Is the seven-year effort to care for Blue Water Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange being torpedoed by Senate Republicans and President Trump?

Where We Were December 3, 2018:

H.R 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2018, was passed by the U.S. House unanimously, 382 to 0, and went to the Senate on June 25. But a week ago, in an article from Tom Philpott in Stars and Stripes, we learned that as many as four senators had placed a hold on the bill that President Trump has already agreed to sign, and that the bill was in jeopardy of failure, after seven years of legislative work by the non-profit, Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc. (MVA). Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Mike Enzi (R-WY) either had concerns about the veracity of the science or costs associated with the bill after years of research, gathering of eye-witness affidavits, Capitol Hill political wrangling, and several years of attempted passage of the bill, not to mention an estimated 20,000 deaths of the approximately 90,000 U.S. Navy Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

This Stunning Turn of Events Left Blue Water Navy Advocates Wondering What’s Next?

Philpott wrote in his November 29 report:

“The high-water mark for veteran advocates might have been reached in June when the House passed a Blue Water Navy bill unanimously. By August, a new VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, reversed that momentum, directing deputies to strongly oppose extension of Agent Orange-related benefits to sailors and Marines who patrolled territorial waters off Vietnam but didn’t come ashore or operate in ‘brown water’ nearer to sprayed foliage or runoff from dioxin-laced herbicides.

“Wilkie wrote to Isakson in early September that the science doesn’t support extending benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans, given that exposure levels are undetermined, and the potency of dioxins sprayed over land likely was diluted so as not to affect personnel at sea. He also complained that passage of HR 299 would slow efforts to end a backlog of VA compensation claim appeals, and that the House bill would cover the cost of new benefits in part by raising VA home loan fees, including, for the first time, imposing fees on disabled veterans, those who seek to buy higher priced homes using VA-backed jumbo mortgages.”

However, the new VA secretary wasn’t the only problem. Once the bill got to the Senate, the big veteran service organizations such as the VFW and American Legion essentially revoked their support for the bill that led to the unanimous House vote and objected to the financial offset they had previously agreed to. Under what’s known as Pay-Go Act —the bi-partisan law authored by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) that requires new spending to be “offset” by spending reductions or revenue increases does NOT EXEMPT VETERANS programs— the offset everyone had to agree to would slightly raise VA home loan origination fees for jumbo loans (higher priced homes) for all veterans in the category, including disabled vets. Note: The disabled veteran issue here may sound contentious but those of us in that category have enough income to make this increase fairly insignificant and, yes, I am a disabled veteran that would be subjected to the increase.

The other part of the puzzle was the senators. Their objections were over concerns of overuse of presumptive conditions lists for disability claims approval by the VA for toxic exposure and a new Congressional Budget Office cost analysis that used questionable information. That information is refuted, as is a question raised about exposed veteran numbers affected by the bill and the impact on the VA claims backlog, in a memo from Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc. Fortunately, Senator Paul removed his hold on the bill after MVA agreed to include a presumptive condition discussion and language proposed by Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) in a new Toxic Exposure Research Center (TERC) bill to be developed and filed in 2019. Senator Lee’s staff said he wants to give science a chance to inform presumptive condition decisions and is waiting on a new study due out in 2019. However, the new language to go into the 2019 TERC is not going to impact the lists already developed under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, in which Blue Water Navy veterans will be included once H.R. 299 is passed.

I spoke with retired Navy Commander John Wells, Director of MVA and retired Marine Sergeant Major Jim Kuiken on BlazeTV’s The Rob Maness Show about the Toxic Exposure issues of Vietnam veterans and what today’s veterans face from their toxic exposures such as burn pits.

Where We Are on December 7, 2018:

I accompanied the director of Military Veteran’s Advocacy, Inc. to a meeting with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Wilkie on the morning of December 3rd. After we heard about his testimony ending VA support of H.R. 299, the secretary agreed to meet with us so we could present the scientific, geographic, manpower study, and cost information Commander Wells has spent years collecting, developing, and was used in H.R. 299 that passed the House of Representatives unanimously.

First, I want to say, Mr. Wilkie is on the side of veterans, as anyone should be in his position. It was obvious he had not only been briefed on but also read and studied our preparation materials, enabling a good conversation with Mr. Wells and I about the specifics of the issues with the bill. Unfortunately, while he agrees with the plight of the Blue Water Vietnam Veterans, his organization is truly in opposition to the effort. We’ve already heard the new “study” Senator Lee wants to wait on is going to show that ALL previous science has been incorrect and that these Navy veterans shouldn’t really get Agent Orange presumptive benefits. Sadly, that’s why the VA shouldn’t be in charge of its own studies; bureaucracies like to prove their previous bad decisions were right. Even the secretary admitted he didn’t have knowledge of what was going into the study in our meeting.

Second, we learned in the meeting that the president is also opposed to using the selected offset to fund H.R. 299. I’ll let you in on a secret, Mr. President: we don’t like it one damn bit either. Our suggestion is and has always been, exempt veterans programs from the Pay-Go Act! Use your power to influence the incoming Speaker of the House, Ms. Pelosi, to drop her opposition to amending the law that she wrote, we’ll be right there to help. MVA has already floated the trial balloon to her staff, receiving no positive response.

Third, Secretary Wilkie’s department also needs a deputy secretary to help him care for veterans and their families. I recommend you seriously look at appointing retired Commander John Wells to that position, Mr. President. He’s proven to be a very effective advocate for all of us veterans, and Wilkie needs the help.

Where We Need to Be on December 10, 2018:

Senator’s Lee and Enzi need to remove their holds on H.R. 299. Call their offices and let them know right now: Lee – (202) 224-5444; Enzi – (202) 224-3424. Call President Trump’s office at (202)-456-1111, and ask him to do two things: first, to publicly state he does not like the offset and will work to exempt VA programs from Pay-Go next year; second, to sign H.R. 299 as soon as it gets to his desk this year. If these things don’t happen quickly, there will be another one-year delay, at a minimum.

As Tom Philpott note’s in his latest article: “Blue Water Navy advocates, however, want no more delays. And Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate committee, and Sen. Jon Tester (Montana), its ranking Democrat, have promised to push through a bill this year, taking advantage of momentum behind the House vote.”

Philpott notes that even the top veteran services organizations have withdrawn their opposition to the funding offset, so now H.R. 299 can be passed out of committee without Amendment at this point IF Senators Lee and Enzi, along with President Trump, drop their opposition.

So veterans and advocates need to call, call, call, without delay, and respectfully ask them to act today. After all, 20,000 of the initial 90,000 Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans have already passed away in the seven years MVA has been working diligently to get this bill passed. How many more have to die before America keeps its commitment to “care for those who have borne the battle,” Mr. President?