BUFFALO, NY (WBFO) – Congress is closer to passing legislation which would give tens of thousands of Vietnam Veterans medical benefits – decades after they were exposed to the chemical Agent Orange.
Agent Orange was a defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to eradicate potential cover and food supplies for the Viet Cong. Its ingredients include dioxin, which is linked to several cancers, Parkinson’s Disease and heart ailments.
In 1991, Congress passed legislation creating medical benefits for Vietnam veterans exposed to the herbicide. An estimated 90,000 veterans, however, have been denied coverage. These are the Blue Water Navy Veterans, who served on ships off the Vietnamese coast but may have also been exposed to the chemical.
In January, a court ruling forced the Department of Veterans Affairs to extend the same benefits to Blue Water Navy Veterans. After some resistance the VA has relented but VA Secretary Robert Wilkie says verifying eligible blue water veterans will be tricky and lengthy.
“The example I used in the testimony was you might have a destroyer, as part of a carrier task force, and the captain of the destroyer handed out Vietnam Service ribbons to everybody on his crew. In that case it’s probably about 300 people,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a recent interview with WBFO. “But the carrier sailing next to the destroyer, with 6,000 sailors, that captain may not have handed out that ribbon. We’re going to have to go back to ships’ logs and hope they are still there.”
In the meantime, the House of Representatives has passed legislation which would codify January’s court decision. Western New York Congressmen Chris Collins, Brian Higgins and Tom Reed were among the more than 330 bipartisan co-sponsors of a bill which passed unanimously. Collins, in a recent interview, said it would be better if the VA would act on its own, rather than be forced through legislation. But for the good of the sailors, he recently told WBFO, it has to be done.
“It’s good to be if the powers that be say they’re not going to fight it, but let’s make it a law and not rely on somebody doing the right thing,” Collins said. “We’re going to keep fighting on that.”
Passage in the Senate is far from a sure thing. A previous attempt died in the Senate last December, when some lawmakers raised concerns about the potential cost and the strain this would put on the VA.