Washington Update for May 16th, 2019 - Navy Blue Water passes House
Navy Blue Water Vietnam Veterans Act, H.R. 299 -- Passes House 410-0
TREA IS PLEASED TO REPORT
The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a measure to ease disability benefit rules for veterans who served on ships off the coasts of Vietnam. These veteran suffered serious illnesses that are connected to chemical defoliant exposure.
The legislation, H.R. 299, passed 410-0 with strong bipartisan support from both Democratic and Republican leadership. Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-CA, and Ranking Member Phil Roe, R-TN continued their strong support and called the passage the quickest way to provide those veterans with benefits they deserve. The bill now goes to the Senate for their consideration and action.
TREA RECOMMENDS YOU CONTACT YOUR SENATORS AND URGE THEM
TO SUPPORT SWIFT ACTION ON H.R. 299/S.1195
The measure affects about 90,000 veterans who served on ships during the Vietnam War but never set foot in the country. If they had, they would be eligible for presumptive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a process which bypasses hard evidence connecting a veteran’s illness to their military service because of an established presumed connection between the two.
So while a veteran who served on the shoreline can receive disability payouts after contracting Parkinson’s disease or prostate cancer, a veteran who served on a ship a few miles away would have to provide specific scientific evidence that they were exposed to toxic chemicals while on duty. Thus, many “blue water” veterans have been denied disability benefits, despite contracting some of the same illnesses as their peers.
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that VA officials have improperly interpreted the law in denying those claims, essentially awarding the benefits to the entire class of veterans. VA officials have recommended against an appeal of that ruling, but Department of Justice officials have not yet made a final decision. The deadline for an appeal was extended by the Supreme Court until the end of this month.
TREA has been and continues to be a strong advocate and believes Congress should act now. Last year, the House approved nearly identical legislation, however, the bill was blocked by Senators Mike Lee, R-UT and Mike Enzi, R-WY, on procedural votes in the closing days of the last Congress.
Additional Vietnam-era veterans suffering from diseases linked to Agent Orange, including those who served offshore on vessels, could qualify for expedited benefits under H.R. 299.
The measure also includes cost-offsetting language that would change how the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) collects some home loan fees.
The House passage follows a 9-2 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit that said veterans who served off the coast of southeast Asia are entitled to a presumption of benefits. “This bill is necessary to codify the Court’s decision and mitigate concerns that VA may narrowly interpret the decision,” according to a report on the measure from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
‘Blue Water’ Veterans
The 1991 Agent Orange Act (Public Law 102-4) authorized the VA to presume that Vietnam veterans with designated conditions were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides, making them eligible for VA disability compensation. Diseases associated with Agent Orange include Type 2 diabetes, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and several other forms of cancer.
The bill would restore the presumption of Agent Orange exposure to veterans who served in specified offshore areas near Vietnam from Jan. 9, 1962, through May 7, 1975, allowing them to receive medical care and disability compensation. Their survivors could also qualify for benefits.
The provision would take effect on Jan. 1, 2020, for new claims. If a veteran previously filed a claim and was denied, they could submit a new claim beginning in 2020 and the eligibility date for disability pay would be retroactive to when the claim was first filed. The department could pause a pending claim until the bill’s changes take effect.
The VA would have to reach out to Blue Water Navy veterans who might qualify, including by publishing a notice on the department’s website and writing to veteran service organizations. It would have to report to Congress on its outreach efforts and on claims that were filed, granted, or denied.
Other Veterans & Family Members
The measure would also:
- Extend a presumption of Agent Orange exposure for veterans who served in or near the Korean Demilitarized Zone from Sept. 1, 1967, through Aug. 31, 1971.
- Authorize the VA to provide health care, vocational training, and a monetary allowance to veterans’ children born with spina bifida, if the veteran served in Thailand from Jan. 9, 1962, through May 7, 1975, and was exposed to Agent Orange. The VA offers similar benefits to children of veterans who served in Vietnam and the Korean DMZ.
- Require the VA to report to Congress within 180 days of enactment on the latest findings of a follow-up study on symptoms affecting Gulf War veterans.
The bill would modify how the VA collects fees from some veterans in exchange for making, guaranteeing, or insuring part of a home loan. For instance, from Jan. 1, 2020, through Jan. 1, 2022, the fee collected for the first use of the benefit for loans with no down payment would be increased to 2.4%, from 2.15%.
Service members awarded the Purple Heart would be exempt from any loan fees. The measure would also eliminate an extra fee of 0.25% of the loan amount that’s charged to reservists.
The bill would permit the VA to provide a 25% guarantee for the full amount of most loans starting in 2020 for veterans who don’t have an outstanding VA-guaranteed loan. Under current law, the VA can only guarantee as much as 25% of a threshold that Freddie Mac sets for “jumbo loans,” which is $484,350 in 2019. That cap is too low for many veterans seeking to purchase a home in high-cost areas, according to the committee report.
An $80,000 limit on loans that the VA can make to American Indian veterans would be repealed.
The measure also would allow a VA-approved appraiser to make an appraisal under the home loan program based on information gathered from a third party. The change would allow appraisers to use property tax records, real estate listings, and similar sources.