Washington Examiner: Bill would expand care for veterans suffering from Agent Orange exposure

Fifteen years ago, the Veterans Affairs Department decided to exclude certain Navy veterans from receiving healthcare treatment related to Agent Orange, a ruling that Sen. Steve Daines is trying to change.

In 1991, Congress passed a law requiring the VA to provide coverage to Vietnam veterans with illnesses that the Institute of Medicine has directly linked to Agent Orange exposure.

But about a decade later, in 2002, the VA decided it would cover only veterans who could provide they had orders for “boots on the ground” assignments during the Vietnam War. The exclusion prevented thousands of sailors, many of them known as “blue water” veterans, from receiving benefits. These Navy veterans had documented exposure to Agent Orange by drinking and bathing in contaminated water just offshore the areas where the U.S. military was trying to reduce jungle foliage with the toxic chemical.

“Why were these sailors left out? That’s really the question,” Daines, R-Mont., told the Washington Examiner. “Frankly, it’s an issue of justice and doing the right thing by these Navy veterans who were serving on the water in ships [and swift boats] in Vietnam and were exposed.

“I’ve not yet found a good reason they were exempted,” he added.

Many years ago, the VA was rejecting all Navy veterans’ claims to illnesses related to service-related Agent Orange exposure. But later Congress allowed “brown water” Vietnam veterans, those sailing board river patrol boats, to receive benefits.

The provision did not extend to their “blue water” brethren assigned to ships in deeper water offshore. Thousands of these blue water veterans, many of whom are now in their 60s and 70s, have been suffering from severe health problems – some of them for decades. The VA, however, continues to deny health coverage to many of them because of the 2002 rule barring health coverage for Agent Orange-related illnesses to veterans who served on vessels off of Vietnam’s coast.

Daines and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have teamed up to fix the Navy Vietnam veteran loophole. Their bill would force the VA to provide healthcare coverage for Agent Orange-related illnesses for those who served in the “bays, harbors, and territorial seas” of Vietnam during the period beginning Jan. 9, 1962, and ending on May 7, 1975.

“Kirsten Gillibrand is a good friend of mine, and we’ve worked on this issue together,” Daines said. “You might be wondering how a Democrat from New York and a Republican from Montana can find common ground.”

“I very much enjoy working with her. She is passionate about justice for veterans and taking care of them, and that’s why we’ve joined forces,” he said.

Montana has one of the highest per capita veterans populations in the United States, Daines said, and eight veterans serve as staffers in his office.

“I probably have one of the highest numbers of veterans who serve on my staff of anybody in the Senate,” he said. “This issue has come up with our veterans in Montana, and you start comparing notes and start seeing that this is not just a Montana issue; it’s a national issue.”

Daines and Gillibrand first introduced the bill during the last Congress, and the Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing in 2015 on the issue. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy veteran who was tortured in a North Vietnamese jail, has long supported a way to help his “brothers in arms” who suffered from exposure to the toxin.

The bill has 34 co-sponsors, a bipartisan group that includes McCain, but has yet to receive a vote in the Veteran Affairs Committee or on the Senate floor.

Daines argues that action on the bill is long overdue.

“We need to find some bipartisan legislation here in this town, and veterans issues are oftentimes a good way to bring this Congress together,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do for our veterans.”