July 23, 2019

Chairman Takano Questions VA Decision to Delay Processing for All Blue Water Navy Claims

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano and many Democratic members of the Committee released a letter, sent to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, questioning VA’s decision not to decide any claims for Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans until January 2020. In their letter, Members wrote that while H.R. 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, gives VA the ability to stay Blue Water claims, “we have questions about the decision to stay all claims without exception” as some of these veterans “cannot wait until January for assistance.” The letter also asked whether VA has begun delivering healthcare benefits to these veterans. Members urged VA to proactively work with Congress to ensure the implementation process goes smoothly and requested a detailed and comprehensive implementation plan.

The letter was signed by Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) and Reps. Conor Lamb (PA-17), Julia Brownley (CA-26 ), Chris Pappas (NH-01), Mike Levin (CA-49), Elaine Luria (VA-02), Susie Lee (NV-03), Joe Cunningham (SC-01), Gilbert Cisneros (CA-39), Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Northern Mariana Islands), Max Rose (NY-11), and Anthony Brindisi (NY-22).

The full text of the letter can be found below:

The Honorable Robert Wilkie

Secretary

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Avenue, NW

Washington, DC  20420

Dear Mr. Secretary,

Thank you for your July 1, 2019, letter and your assurances that VA continues to develop and refine a comprehensive implementation plan for enactment of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 (“the Act”).  However, in light of your recent decision to stay all Blue Water claims, we have concerns about VA’s use of this time to adequately prepare to begin processing these claims in January 2020.  We expect successful implementation of Blue Water and understand VA may need assistance going forward.  In order for us to help, cooperation and communication between VA and Congress is essential.

As you know, the Act does not go into effect until January 2020.  However, the Federal Circuit issued mandate in the case of Procopio v. Wilkie in March of this year, allowing VA to grant service connection to Blue Water veterans under existing law.  Until this decision is expanded by the Act, we understand the Procopio ruling stands.  While VA may exercise its right under the Act to stay Blue Water claims, we have questions about the decision to stay all claims without exception.  As we know, some Blue Water veterans are suffering from debilitating illnesses related to herbicide exposure and cannot wait until January for assistance.  We also know some veterans previously received disability benefits based on Blue Water service before VA changed course, cutting off those benefits.  For these veterans, relief could be as easy as reinstating previously established service connection.

 The Act also provides Priority Group 6 healthcare for Blue Water veterans.  Because your stay on disability claims does not apply to healthcare benefits, we would like to know whether VA has begun allowing treatment in VA healthcare facilities for Blue Water veterans.

As part of our ongoing obligation to oversee Blue Water implementation and ensure success in January, we need more information on a comprehensive plan for processing Blue Water disability claims.  In this plan, we need to see estimations on numbers of anticipated claimants, strategies for evidentiary development and interagency coordination with Department of Defense, an assessment of necessary resources for claims processing, including new IT development, outreach and collaboration to veteran service organizations, and post-implementation monitoring action. 

During the planning and preparation phase, we want to make our expectations clear.  We are ready to assist VA to ensure the success of this long-awaited Act and trust you will tell us what additional resources are necessary to secure timely and fair claims processing.  Moving forward, we urge VA to proactively communicate with Congress and begin sharing information about your implementation plan for Blue Water claims.

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Miguel R. Salazar