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Gillibrand, VA clash over funds for off-shore Navy veterans

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    U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., walking down Main Street in Catskill. Gillibrand called on her Senate colleagues to oppose the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
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    Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Flaherty, director of Columbia County Veterans Services, placing flags on veterans’ grave sites in Chatham. Flaherty has advocated for the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act since the 1990s. Flaherty said the tragic side of the recent passage of the bill in the House of Representatives is that many veterans he worked with who could have benefited from the legislation have died.
October 8, 2018 11:02 pm

WASHINGTON — The sponsor of legislation that would help certain naval veterans who served in the Vietnam War obtain compensation for health complications caused by Agent Orange exposure is hopeful the legislation will move forward, despite expressed opposition from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Naval veterans who served on the shore of Vietnam do not get compensation from the Veterans Administration for complications caused by exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

The Agent Orange Act of 1991 only allowed compensation for soldiers who served, boots on the ground, inland or sailors who served on inland water ways, but veteran organizations are pushing Congress to pass legislation that would add sailors stationed just off-shore during the war, arguing it is possible those sailors could have been exposed.

“I have known Navy veterans who have died waiting for this legislation to pass,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Flaherty, director of Columbia County Veterans Services. “There are a lot of unhappy veterans. There is no question in our minds when those planes flew over spraying Agent Orange it affected the sailors on the deck of ships on the shoreline.”

In the past, Flaherty said the cancer-causing herbicide could have been carried to ships anchored offshore by wind or into ships’ potable water drawn from the ocean and filtered.

The House of Representatives passed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act on June 25 with a 382-0 vote.

The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs has held the bill since June 28.

“Senator Gillibrand has had productive conversations with Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., about his concerns and they have discussed ideas for modifications,” according to a statement from Gillibrand’s office. “We are hopeful that Chairman Isakson will produce a bill with small modifications very soon and that the Senate would be able to vote on it without any further delay.”

The committee held a hearing on the bill Aug. 1 and VA Undersecretary for Benefits Administration Paul Lawrence told members of the committe the department opposes the legislation.

“We oppose this bill,” Lawrence said. “We know it is incredibly difficult to hear from groups of veterans who are ailing and ill. There is no conclusive science from the institute of medicine to support claims of exposure.”

Lawrence arguedthe bill would set a precedent that the department would have to pay veterans’ claims regardless of the scientific evidence.

The VA is conducting a health study that compares the health effects on Vietnam veterans who did not serve inland, including nearly 1,000 Blue Water Navy veterans, with non-veteran populations, which will start to be published in 2019, Lawrence said.

“They have been studying this for 50 years,” Flaherty said. “This is the closest this bill has ever been. It is time to stop stalling, stop studying and give these veterans what they deserve.”

Agent Orange exposure can cause many health complications including chronic B-cell leukemias, Hodgkin lymphoma, ischemic heart disease, multiple myeloma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, peripheral neuropathy, porphyria cutanea tarda — characterized by liver dysfunction — prostate cancer, respiratory cancers and soft tissue sarcomas, which attacks muscle, fat, blood and lymph vessels and connective tissues, and diabetes according to the website for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Randy Staats, of Hudson, served as a deckhand on the USS New Jersey from 1967 to 1969 and was anchored off the Vietnam shore during that time at points all along the coast. Staats suffers from diabetes, a condition he has requested compensation for more than 10 times since 1992 and has been denied every time, he said.

“They just told me I wasn’t going to get it because Blue Water Navy veterans are not entitled to it,” Staats said. “They are waiting for most of us to die and then they will give it to us. If it was their kids over there, they would have this thing passed already.”

FUNDING THE BLUE WATER NAVY BILL

Lawrence also told committee members in August that the VA opposes the way Congress plans to pay for the bill through increasing fees charged as part of the VA Home Loan programs. Veterans with disabilities are exempt from funding fees.

“The funding plan for [the bill] is unfortunate,” said Greene County Veterans Service Agency Director Michelle Romalin Deyo. “It is disconcerting that the funding for benefits payable to our Blue Water could be at the expense of other veterans.”

Under the bill passed by the House rates for veterans using the loan programs would be as follows:

n From 2.15 percent to 2.40 percent of the loan amount for loans with no down payment and first-use of the VA guarantee benefit.

n From 3.3 percent to 3.8 percent of the loan amount for loans with no down payment on subsequent use of the loan benefit.

n From 1.50 percent to 1.75 percent of the loan amount for loans with a 5 percent down payment.

n From 1.25 percent to 1.45 percent of the loan amount for loans with a 10 percent down payment.

“Though the VA Home Loan Guarantee Funding Fee is only collected from veterans who are not rated by the VA with a service-connected disability with certain exceptions; that doesn’t mean it won’t affect our disabled veterans,” Deyo said. “Veterans with pending original claims, will generally not be eligible for the funding fee waiver — not until they have a VA Rating Decision of 10 percent service-connected disabled or greater. The funding fee is already a sizable fee.”

The increases would take effect Jan. 1 next year and return to current levels after Sept. 30, 2026.

Funding fees haven’t been raised since 2004.

“In June, the House unanimously approved the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act 382-0 and the Senate should follow suit immediately to get these veterans the benefits they deserve,” said U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-19, who voted for the bill. “After enactment of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, the VA determined that benefits for veterans made sick by agent orange would only be available to those with “boots on the ground” or served on inland waterways. I believe this determination was wrong.”

Deyo works with many Blue Water Navy veterans, and hopes the bill passes soon.

“We do have a significant population of Blue Water veterans affected by herbicide exposure-related illnesses considered presumptive for so-called ‘Boots on the Ground’ veterans,” Deyo said. “So, I am very hopeful that Congress will find another resource, outside of existing VA programs, to make sure our Blue Water Veterans are finally compensated, and all of the corresponding benefits are extended to them and their dependents, without further delay.”