WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs leaders are increasing their efforts to sideline legislation that would extend disability benefits to “blue water” veterans from the Vietnam War, saying the move would set a problematic precedent for future complaints.

“We know it is incredibly difficult to hear from Blue Water Veterans who are ailing and ill, and we have great empathy and compassion for these veterans and their families,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie wrote in a letter to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last week.

“However, we urge the committee to consider the scientific evidence, impact on other veterans, and costs associated with this legislation.”

The legislation, passed overwhelmingly by the House in June, would grant presumptive exposure status to nearly 90,000 veterans who served in ships off the coast of Vietnam during the war.

Veterans who served on the ground or on ships traveling inland waterways are already given that presumption of exposure to Agent Orange, fast-tracking their disability claims for a host of cancers and rare illnesses connected to the chemical defoliant.

Advocates have argued that individuals who served on the seas just a few miles away deserve the same treatment.

But VA officials have argued that the scientific-based methods they use on such cases doesn’t back up the blue water veterans requests. In their letter last week and at a Senate hearing last month, they argued the presence of Agent Orange on those ships “cannot reasonably be determined” and the presumption of exposure should not be automatically granted.

Veterans who develop the illnesses can receive medical treatment from VA regardless of their benefits status, and can still file to prove their sickness is connected to their military service.

But the elderly veterans say VA has systematically denied any connection between their health and the chemical exposure for decades, even as they develop health problems that mirror veterans who served on shore.

Wilkie also argued that the proposed funding for the resulting influx of new claims — a new fee of VA-backed home loans — is unfair for other veterans and insufficient to cover the expected costs.

House officials had estimated the new fee would generate about $1.1 billion over 10 years, enough to pay for the blue water benefits. But Wilkie in his letter estimates the cost to be closer to $5.5 billion, including thousands more veterans who could also receive eligibility and additional costs for staff to handle the claims.

“The changes proposed in this legislation will have a greater effect beyond what we believe Congress intends,” Wilkie wrote.

“The creation of a new statutory presumption that is not adequately supported by scientific evidence will encourage increased pressure on both Congress and VA to create and expand additional presumptions under a similarly liberal approach.”

Wilkie’s stance is at odds with his predecessor, former VA Secretary David Shulkin, who last fall stated that the blue water veterans “shouldn’t be waiting any longer” for a solution and said that a reasonable decision on the issue “will not be guided by scientific evidence” because of the decades that have passed since the potential exposure.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee officials have not made any public announcements on when the legislation may move ahead. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn., called the latest VA opposition to the issue unacceptable.

“Now, Blue Water Navy veterans who have been stuck waiting for 40 years could be left waiting even longer,” he said. “Our nation owes it to these veterans to get this done.

“I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers to make sure that happens, even if we have to drag the administration along kicking and screaming to do so.”

If Congress fails to pass any legislation on the issue this year, VA could still be forced to award the benefits to blue water Vietnam veterans based on an ongoing lawsuit in federal court. Arguments on that proceeding aren’t expected to move forward until later this year.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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