Key Lawmakers Say the Time Is Now to Enact Benefits for Blue Water Navy Vets

  • Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., joined by Rep. Buddy Carter R-Ga., left, leads a meeting with the Georgia Ports Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
    Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., joined by Rep. Buddy Carter R-Ga., left, leads a meeting with the Georgia Ports Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
  • The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Intrepid (CVS-11) steams in the South China Sea on Sept. 13, 1966, with aircraft of Attack Carrier Air Wing 10 (CVW-10) parked on the flight deck. CVW-10 was assigned to the Intrepid for a deployment to Vietnam from April 4 to Nov. 21, 1966. V.O. McColley/Navy
    The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Intrepid (CVS-11) steams in the South China Sea on Sept. 13, 1966, with aircraft of Attack Carrier Air Wing 10 (CVW-10) parked on the flight deck. CVW-10 was assigned to the Intrepid for a deployment to Vietnam from April 4 to Nov. 21, 1966. V.O. McColley/Navy

Buoyed by an appeals court ruling, House and Senate leaders began another push Monday for a "Blue Water Navy" bill on Agent Orange benefits that failed last year following opposition from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"It's time to do the right thing" by sailors who served offshore during the Vietnam war, said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he has enough votes in the Senate to pass the bill. He hopes to overcome "a few people who made my life miserable" last year by blocking a Senate vote on the previous bill, which had passed 382-0 in the House.

Isakson and Roe were joined by Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, ranking member of the Senate committee, in urging VA Secretary Robert Wilkie not to appeal a January ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in favor of extending Agent Orange health care and benefits to offshore sailors.

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The appeals court considered the case of 73-year-old Alfred Procopio Jr., who served on the aircraft carrier Intrepid off Vietnam and had been denied benefits by the VA for lack of scientific evidence that his diabetes and prostate cancer were related to exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.

The court ruling found that the science backed up Procopio's claim. Judge Kimberly A. Moore wrote, "We find no merit in the government's arguments to the contrary."

The House and Senate leaders spoke at an American Legion "Fireside Chat" about the way forward on veterans issues in the new Congress.

Isakson said that much of the committees' work will focus on overseeing implementation of landmark legislation passed last year on private health care options, electronic health care records, and accountability for VA staff and employees.

"If we mess this up, I want to go into the witness protection program," Roe said of the expected $16 billion to be spent over the course of a contract with Cerner Corp. to mesh Defense Department and VA electronic health care records.

All four of the committee leaders said oversight of the VA Mission Act's implementation would ease veterans service organizations' concerns that community care could lead to the "privatization" of VA health care.

"We're not privatizing the VA, period," Isakson said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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