MOLINE – Today, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (IL-17), a member of the powerful House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, raised the concerns of local veterans regarding the implementation of Agent Orange presumption for Blue Water Navy veterans in a letter to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie. Specifically, Congresswoman Bustos called on the VA to reconsider their stay on processing claims of Agent Orange exposure submitted by veterans who served off the coast during the Vietnam War and in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) during the Korean War.
“When our veterans return home from service, we must make sure all of the resources they need to live a happy, healthy life are readily available,” Congresswoman Bustos said. “Agent Orange exposure is an issue I consistently hear about from local veterans and action cannot be delayed. That’s why I took this measure today to hold the VA accountable to the actions taken by both Congress and the courts. The VA should reconsider their decision and begin processing these claims immediately.”
Currently, the VA is only processing the Agent Orange claims of veterans who served on land during the Vietnam War and will not begin to process claims for those who served at sea or in the Korean DMZ until January 1, 2020. However, Congresswoman Bustos strongly urged them to reconsider this stay given the age of these veterans and the devastating illnesses that result from Agent Orange exposure. Additionally, both the courts and Congress have taken steps to address this issue and provide the VA with the authority to process these claims immediately. In June, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act – which was cosponsored and supported by Congresswoman Bustos – was signed into law. This action came shortly after the Justice Department chose not to challenge the ruling in the case of Procopio v. Wilkie, which established that Blue Water Navy veterans are entitled to Agent Orange presumption.
You can click HERE to see the full letter or read the text below:
August 8, 2019
The Honorable Robert Wilkie
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20420
Dear Secretary Wilkie,
I write today to raise concerns consistently voiced by veterans across my district regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) implementation of the Agent Orange presumption for Blue Water Navy veterans.
Like these veterans that reach out to my office, I was pleased when the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (Pub.L. 116-23) was passed by Congress and signed into law, and I was proud to have cosponsored and voted in favor of this legislation. After a decades-long fight, veterans of the Vietnam and Korean Wars who served off the coast of Vietnam and in the DMZ finally won coverage of medical conditions associated with the herbicide Agent Orange. This legislative victory came on the heels of a court victory when the Justice Department formally chose not to challenge the ruling in Procopio v. Wilkie that established Blue Water Navy veterans are entitled to Agent Orange presumption.
However, the VA has announced that it will not begin processing Blue Water veteran claims until January 1, 2020. While this is when the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act goes into effect, the VA already has the authority to process these claims under Procopio v. Wilkie. Given the age of Vietnam and Korean War veterans, as well as the devastating illnesses that result from Agent Orange exposure, I strongly urge that the VA reconsider this stay on processing claims. Furthermore, I request answers to the following questions by September 1, 2019:
- Does the VA believe it has the authority to process Blue Water Navy veterans’ claims prior to January 1, 2020?
- What are the non-statutory reasons for issuing a stay on processing these claims until January 1, 2020?
- If capacity is an issue, has the VA considered alternative implementation schedules to processing claims?
- How many Blue Water Navy veterans are believed to have been exposed to Agent Orange, and how many of those veterans are still living today?
- What is the VA’s plan for identifying and notifying affected veterans of their eligibility for benefits? Does the VA plan to work with veterans’ service organizations (VSOs) to help notify veterans?
Finally, as a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, I urge you to regularly communicate to Congress any needs that the VA faces as these processes are implemented.
Thank you for your prompt consideration of this request.