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VA rips ‘blue water’ Agent Orange bill, urges Senate to sink it

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VA Rips BWN

 

Department of Veterans Affairs officials say they strongly oppose passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 299), which would extend Agent Orange disability benefits and health care to between 70,000 and 90,000 Veterans who served aboard ships in territorial waters off Vietnam during the war, and today suffer ailments associated with herbicides sprayed across its jungles for years.

The Blue Water Navy bill passed the House unanimously in late June and seemed certain to fly through the Senate, given reports of close coordination on the bill between the chambers’ Veterans’ Affairs committees, and the House having negotiated a plan to pay for the benefits with major Veteran service organizations.

On Wednesday, however, with Robert Wilkie installed two days earlier as VA secretary, his undersecretary for benefits, Paul R. Lawrence, delivered a blistering attack on the Blue Water Navy bill, and on a proposal to test providing routine dental care to Veterans, during a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing.

Lawrence testified that there’s still no credible scientific evidence to support extending Agent Orange-related benefits to shipboard personnel who never went ashore in Vietnam or patrolled its rivers. Without such evidence, he said, it would be wrong, and would create a disastrous precedent, to award VA benefits.

“This committee set the standard to use science to be fair and consistent in cases such as this,” said Lawrence, referring to the Agent Orange Act of 1991. “Once that standard is removed from the equation, it becomes nearly impossible to adjudicate a claim of this type on the merits. The resulting lower threshold sets in motion the prospect of uncontrolled demands for [VA] support.”

Lawrence, who took charge of Veteran benefit programs in May, warned that if HR 299 is enacted, it will “be referenced when other exposure claims are presented to this committee. At that point, Congress will be under greater pressure to accommodate these requests too, regardless of the evidence.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what damage Lawrence and his top official on post-deployment health issues, Dr. Ralph Erickson, inflicted on the popular Blue Water Navy bill. A majority of senators on the committee still spoke in favor.

But the Trump administration has reversed signals of support that a beleaguered VA secretary, David Shulkin, gave Blue Water advocates in March.

VA for years had opposed the legislation. The usual hard line softened a year after Shulkin became President Donald Trump’s first VA secretary when he told Rep. David Valado, R-Ga., lead sponsor of the House bill, “that these Veterans have waited too long and this is a responsibility that this country has.”

Shulkin noted that VA lacked scientific evidence that shipboard personnel were exposed to dioxin. But he said his staff was “working hard to look at offsets” — cuts to other parts of the VA budget — to pay for Blue Water Navy benefits.

“And it is a high priority for us,” he added.

Two weeks later Shulkin was fired, deepening a leadership vacuum at VA caused by political chaos at the White House. Trump initially nominated his White House physician, a Navy admiral, to replace Shulkin. The choice soon fell victim to controversy. The House, meanwhile, passed its Blue Water Navy bill after the Veterans’ Affairs Committee negotiated with major Veterans organizations a way to pay for it, by raising user fees modestly on VA guaranteed home loans.

Wilkie became VA secretary this past Monday. By Wednesday, there was no trace of the accommodating tone on the Blue Water Navy issue that Shulkin had expressed months earlier. Lawrence scorched the bill and its “pay for” plan.

“VA is opposed to paying for the provisions of this bill by increasing the cost that some Veterans must pay to access their [home loan] benefits. Veterans will either have to finance the VA funding fee with interest, or pay up front with cash. This means fewer Veterans will buy homes or [will] buy homes using non-VA options, potentially opening them to predator lenders,” Lawrence said.

He further argued that opening Agent Orange benefits to thousands more Veterans would stunt ongoing efforts to reduce the backlog of compensation claims on appeal, adding time and cost to claim processes.

In written testimony, Lawrence gave fresh estimates on the cost of the Blue Water Navy bill, at total of almost $7 billion over the first 10 years. Some senators pushed back at his attack on the bill, arguing it wouldn’t be needed if VA didn’t set a high bar for these Navy Veterans to gain benefits for conditions on VA’s list of 14 ailments linked to Agent Orange.

Erickson told senators most of the ailments presumed to be caused by Agent Orange also are tied to aging, therefore VA needs evidence of dioxin exposure for ships at sea. He said a Blue Water Navy review conducted by the Institute of Medicine in 2011 failed to find sufficient evidence of dioxin exposure.

He and Lawrence dismissed an oft-cited Australian study that was the scientific foundation for that government to award Agent Orange-related benefits to its shipboard Veterans. That study, said Lawrence, was based on an experiment involving distillation of water with presumed levels of dioxin near to shore. It was U.S. Navy policy to take on water for shipboard use more than 12 miles out to sea, to avoid contaminants, Erickson explained.

Rick Weidman, with Vietnam Veterans of America, made the strongest case in support of Blue Water Veterans: VA officials have misinterpreted the 2011 study, which did find it plausible that shipboard Veterans were exposed to dioxin. Given that Congress already presumes Veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam were exposed, and doesn’t try to calculate level of exposure, that benefit of the doubt should be applied to shipboard personnel too, Weidman said.

“How much [exposure] makes no difference,” he said. “You don’t know [the] difference for folks who served in the delta versus the central highlands where I served. Who knows? And you can’t put it together 40 years later.”

VA’s hard line appears to leave Senate Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in a tough spot. Veteran service organizations and leaders of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee thought Isakson was set to endorse the bill and shepherd it swiftly toward enactment.

At the hearing, however, Isakson said “we have more work to do on these issues.” He promised the committee would work “deliberately” to understand all facets of the Blue Water bill, including whether the House plan to raise VA home loans fees was enough to pay for it. Isakson asked Lawrence whether charging non-disabled Veterans an extra $250 on every $100,000 in loan value would cover the cost of extending Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water Navy Veterans.

“Not in our opinion, no,” said Lawrence. Isakson nodded agreement.

“I did real estate sales my entire life,” Isakson said. “A lot of VA loans, FHA loans. You can make those numbers look like a lot of things. That is not a lot of money” if VA home loan fees are raised, as the House voted, from 2.25 percent of loan amounts to 2.4 percent, for Veterans with active-duty service. “It’s variable too, and depends on number of loans that actually are closed” in any year, he said.

It seems the Blue Water Navy bill will be adrift in uncertainty for at least several more months, its future dependent on how Senate leaders react to stiffened resistance from the Trump administration.

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Vet groups fighting to get Agent Orange benefits for Vietnam-era Blue Water sailors

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Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) met Tuesday with Robert Wilkie to try to coax the new VA secretary out of his department’s newly stiffened opposition to a House-passed bill that would extend VA health care and compensation to tens of thousands of former sailors and Marines with Agent Orange-associated ailments.

“We haven’t convinced him yet,” Brown said in a next day phone interview.

Without support from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, faces a difficult decision on whether to allow a committee vote this fall on the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 299).

“Johnny pays a lot of attention to what the VA thinks, as he should [as] chairman,” Brown said.

The Ohio senator has had several conversations with Isakson on the Blue Water bill and said he “is about as fair-minded and bipartisan a chairman as there is in the Senate.” But Brown declined to guess what Isakson will decide on HR 299 if the VA secretary continues to oppose the bill.

“If we get the VA on board, it will make this a lot easier, I’ll just answer it that way,” Brown said of prospects for the bill. “Otherwise, I think it will be hard.”

We tried polling all 15 senators on the committee to learn what impact VA opposition to HR 299 has had on their support for the bill. A spokesman for Isakson said only that he “is actively working” with the VA, outside stakeholders and his committee “on a path forward on this legislation.”

Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), noted they are original co-sponsors of a near identical Senate bill. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the bill should be passed and signed into law “without delay.” A “disappointed” Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said he wrote to Wilkie, urging him to reconsider his opposition. And Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said he still is reviewing HR 299 and working with colleagues to do “what is best” for Veterans.

Meanwhile, pressure on Isakson builds. Every major Veterans’ group and most military associations urged him this week to move the bill out of committee. Their volley of letters responded to Wilkie’s own Sept. 6 letter to Isakson expanding on why VA opposes extending benefits to Veterans who served on ships off Vietnam and have ailments associated with exposure to dioxin in Agent Orange.

Wilkie noted again that the latest review of available scientific evidence by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), from 2011, concluded that exposure of shipboard personnel to defoliants sprayed over Vietnam “cannot reasonably be determined.” Also, he said, Navy ships were required to draw seawater for conversion to shipboard potable water 12 miles from any river, making the presence of Agent Orange “highly unlikely” and the “dilution factor would have been significant.”

He also criticized how the House-passed bill would pay part of the cost of expanding benefits to Blue Water Vets by ending an exemption from VA home loan funding fees for certain disabled Veterans, those not rated fully and permanently disabled and seeking jumbo loans. The amount of such loans can start as low $453,100, or as high as $679,650, depending on local housing market prices.

If HR 299 becomes law, Wilkie wrote, on a home loan of $500,000 “a disabled Veteran could be required to pay $12,000 to the VA in funding fees (plus interest if rolled into the life of the loan) rather … $11,725 as a down payment, which results in home equity.”

Advocates for Blue Water Veterans argue Wilkie and staff have fallen into a previous pattern of “cherry-picking” information from scientific reports to conclude there is no scientific basis to support extending Agent Orange-related benefits. They also criticize a fresh VA estimate on the cost of HR 299 — $5.5 billion over 10 years — as wildly high and claim VA exaggerates the impact on home-buying Veterans of planned funding fee increases, particularly for disabled Veterans.

Former surface warfare officer, retired Navy commander and lawyer John B. Wells, who has served as general counsel to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, considers himself the technical expert on the science and shipboard practices that, he argues, support extending Agent Orange benefits.

The Slidell, Louisiana, attorney also is executive director of a nonprofit corporation that litigates and advocates for Veterans and trains other attorneys on Veterans’ law. Wells complained to Wilkie that VA staff for Blue Water issues have no naval operational experience or expertise in hydrology, thermodynamics and other relevant sciences for determining how Agent Orange reached sailors at sea.

“The VA consistently cherry picks through the (IOM) reports taking phrases out of context to support their position,” Wells wrote.

A conclusion VA ignores from a 2008 IOM report is that the evidence its research committee “reviewed makes limiting Vietnam service to those who set foot on Vietnamese soil seem inappropriate.”

The same report said: “Given the available evidence, the committee recommends that members of the Blue Water Navy should not be excluded from the set of Vietnam-era Veterans with presumed herbicide exposure.”

Regarding the 2011 report finding that Agent Orange exposure by Blue Water Veterans “could not reasonably be determined,” it needs context, Wells said.

“What [IOM] actually said was: This lack of information makes it impossible to quantify exposures for Blue Water and Brown Water Navy sailors and, so far, for ground troops as well,” Wells wrote. Therefore, IOM couldn’t “state with certainty whether Blue Water Navy personnel were or were not exposed to Agent Orange.”

While the IOM was told Navy ships did not typically make potable water within 12 miles of shore, Wells said it also was told that in exceptional circumstances a ship might take up water for distillation close to the coastline.

Mike Yates, national commander of Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, wrote separately to Isakson. Among points he made was that naval gunfire support data show many ships operated within three nautical miles of the Vietnam coast for periods long enough to mandate water distillation. Also, some Navy ships were provided potable water from barges operating from shore, a practice not known to the IOM before it produced its 2011 report.

More arguments are made in two joint letters to Isakson in mid-September. One is from The Military Coalition, a consortium of 27 Veterans groups and military associations, and another from Veteran service organizations: Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

The second letter reflects a consequential shift of position. The four large Vet groups all now agree they do not support imposing new fees on any service-connected disabled Veteran, even for jumbo home loans. Disabled Veterans “have already paid with their service, and we therefore urge the Committee to strike this provision from HR 299 before passing the legislation.”

If the senators embrace that change, they would have to find other budget offsets to cover the cost of the bill, which VA contends already were woefully inadequate in the House bill to satisfy balanced-budget law requirements. Also, any change to HR 299 would require the bill’s return to the House to be voted on again, increasing the risk that the 115th Congress will run out of time to pass a Blue Water Navy bill.

In that case, advocates would have to restart their quest in 2019 with a mix of lawmakers significantly altered by November’s election.

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43 years after the Vietnam war, many Navy Veterans are still battling for benefits for potential Agent Orange exposure

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  • Tens of thousands of Navy Veterans are excluded from VA benefits related to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam war.
  • A bill making its way through Congress would extend benefits to cover blue-water Veterans, who were stationed in ships off the Vietnamese coast.
  • Early this month, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sent a letter to lawmakers asking to stop the bill, saying its provisions are based on sympathy instead of science.
  • Veterans and their advocates are firing back, flooding the Senate with letters supporting the bill.

Veterans groups are pushing a bill making its way through Congress that would extend VA benefits to tens of thousands US Navy Veterans who were potentially exposed to Agent Orange while serving off the coast of Vietnam. The bill is the latest glimmer of hope for Veterans who have fought for decades to receive the benefit, and would finally recognize their exposure to the toxic herbicide but come at an estimated cost of $5.5 billion to US taxpayers.

The VA is attempting to delay this provision, saying that this vast increase in health care costs should only come after more study, which is likely to publish next year.

"Science does not support the presumption that blue water Navy Veterans were exposed to Agent Orange," said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a letter to the Senate. The letter is yet another roadblock facing Vietnam Veterans who claim their health has suffered due to exposure.

But the Veterans are fighting back. As of Thursday morning, Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Veterans affairs committee, has received at least three letters from advocates urging the Senate to pass the bill. They say the VA is "cherry-picking" evidence and overestimating the bill's true cost.

Agent Orange was one of several chemical herbicides used during the Vietnam War to destroy enemy cover and food crops. Although primarily delivered via aircraft, the defoliant was also carried on vehicles, back-mounted equipment, and sprayed from ships.

Operation Ranch Hand lasted about a decade before a scientific study reported that one of the chemicals caused birth defects in lab animals. The military stopped its use of herbicides in 1971; throughout the next decade Veterans began reporting instances of cancer and birth defects in their children.

The legitimacy of their claims would be argued for the next 20 years, until the Agent Orange Act of 1991 directed the VA to conduct research into the chemical's potential side effects. In the decades since, Vietnam Veterans have slowly started to gain recognition of their Agent Orange exposure and its sometimes life-threatening consequences.

As recently as 2010, the VA extended the list of diseases it would recognize as being linked to the herbicide. Just three years ago, the agency started accepting claims for Veterans who served in Agent Orange-contaminated aircraft in the post-Vietnam era.

But since 2002, the VA took what advocates and Veterans say was a step backwards by invalidating claims presented by blue-water Veterans, saying there was no conclusive scientific evidence that the Vets, who served in warships off the coast, were ever exposed to Agent Orange.

VA: Too much money, not enough science

The question is whether the Veterans were exposed to the herbicide through chemical runoff that made its way into the South China Sea and was then converted into drinking water through the ships' distillation plants.

Where the ships were located makes all the difference.

The VA discredits arguments that US ships made water close enough to land to have used contaminated water. According to the Institute of Medicine, which is now known as the National Academy of Medicine, any chemical runoff would likely have been diluted by coastal waters before reaching the ships' intakes. But, as reported in extensive coverage by ProPublica, Veterans have said ships often distilled water well within that range.

Surprisingly, both sides of the ordeal — the VA, which claims blue water Veterans were not exposed and Veterans advocacy groups that say they were — use the same IOM study to argue their side.

That's because the IOM merely states it is "possible" the Navy Vets were exposed.

The VA now says that's exactly why they should wait before extending benefits to blue-water Veterans.

In a Senate hearing on August 1, Dr. Paul Lawrence, the VA under secretary for benefits, noted this as just one of three reasons the VA opposes the bill.

One of the provisions would increase the fee charged to borrowers under the VA's home loan program. Lawrence said the VA is opposed to "increasing the costs that some Veterans must pay to access their benefits."

He also maintained that the increased loan fees could not offset the costs associated with an extension of Agent Orange-related benefits. Secretary Wilkie's letter reinforced this idea, stating that Congress had underestimated the health care costs by a whopping $5.4 billion. He also argued that the addition of tens of thousands of eligible Veterans would only exacerbate an already extensive backlog of Agent Orange-related claims.

These arguments echo one made in July, just days before the Senate hearing, by former VA Secretary and Vietnam Navy Veteran Anthony Principi. In an op-ed published in USA Today, Principi argued that Congress should stand on the side of science and pass "sensible laws that maintain the integrity of our legislative process."

Veterans and advocates say that's 'poppycock'

The Veterans won't face this battle alone.

The Senate is hearing from a resounding chorus of supporters who say the VA is using a typical stall tactic.

"These Vietnam Veterans have waited too long. It is time for us as a country to do the right thing," former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin wrote. Dr. Shulkin, who was fired by President Donald Trump in late March, said this bill is not driven by sympathy as the VA claims, but by a conscientious desire to uphold "our country's responsibility for caring for those who have borne the battle."

Another letter, cosigned by four Veterans organizations, pointed out that it was the VA's "erroneous decision" to disqualify blue-water Veterans in the first place, and that the science is on their side.

"The IOM found that there is not a scientific basis to exclude blue water Navy Veterans," the letter said.

In his letter addressed to the Senate, Dr. Shulkin recognized the legitimacy of both sides of this nuanced issue.

"The answer must not be to simply deny benefits," he wrote. "When there is a deadlock, my personal belief is that the tie should be broken in favor of the brave men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us."

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act soared through the House of Representatives with a vote of 382-0. When — or even if — it will become law now rests in the hands of the Senate which, as of Thursday, has yet to decide.

Source

Former VA secretaries spar over ‘Blue Water’ Navy benefits

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VA secretaries spar

 

WASHINGTON — The fight over extending benefits to “blue water” Veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam is now pitting former Veterans Affairs secretaries against each other, adding to the confusion over Congress’ next steps.

Last week, four former VA secretaries — Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson, James Peake and Bob McDonald — wrote to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee urging lawmakers not to grant presumptive illness status to roughly 90,000 blue water Veterans who claim exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, saying there is insufficient proof for their cases.

“(This legislation) is based on what we believe to be inconclusive evidence to verify that these crews experience exposure to Agent Orange while their vessels were underway,” the group wrote. “We urge the committee to defer action … until such a study is completed and scientific evidence is established to expand presumptions to those at sea.”

The recommendation is in line with arguments laid out by current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie earlier this month. Department officials have argued that granting the presumptive status to Veterans could upend the system by establishing new, non-scientific criteria for awarding benefits.

But advocates for the Vietnam Veterans have argued that scientific proof of exposure is impossible given that proper sampling was not done decades ago, as the ships patrolled the waters around the South China Sea.

They say rare cancers and other unusual illnesses clustering among the blue water Veterans should be enough to spur action from Congress.

Earlier this year, members of the House agreed. They overwhelmingly passed legislation that would require VA officials to automatically assume those Veterans were exposed to Agent Orange for benefits purposes, the same status granted to troops who served on the ground in Vietnam or on ships traveling upon inland rivers.

Under current department rules, the blue water Veterans can receive medical care for their illnesses through VA but must prove toxic exposure while on duty to receive compensation for the ailments. Advocates have argued that VA officials are systematically denying those claims.

In a letters to Wilkie and the committee this week, John Wells — counsel to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association — blasted the department’s stance as unfair and inhumane.

“Whether (the opposition) is due to bureaucratic intransigence or incompetence I do not know,” he wrote. “The bottom line, however, is that they have misrepresented and ‘cherry picked’ evidence to support their flawed position. That is a stain on the national honor.”

Wells and other advocates have an ally in at least one former VA leader. David Shulkin, who was fired by Trump earlier this year, petitioned the Senate committee this week to move ahead on the issue, calling it a matter of honoring the Veterans’ sacrifice.

“As Secretary, I was faced with the dilemma of what to do when there was insufficient evidence to make a reasonable conclusion,” he wrote. “I stated then — and continue to believe — that in the absence of reliable data to guide a decision, the answer must not be to simply deny benefits.

“When there is a deadlock, my personal belief is that the tie should be broken in favor of the brave men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us.”

Moving ahead with the legislation could prove expensive for the department. House officials estimated the cost of extending benefits to be about $1.1 billion over 10 years, but current VA officials have insisted the total is closer to $5.5 billion.

For now, the legislation remains stalled in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has said the issue is among his top priorities but has also voiced concerns about whether the House measure as written covers the cost and scope of the problem.

Wilkie is scheduled to appear before the committee on Sept. 26 to discuss a host of reform efforts at the department since he took over the top leadership post on July 30.

Source

New VA secretary 'sucker punches' Vietnam Navy Veterans

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) - Sucker-punched, blind-sided and betrayed.

Vietnam War Navy Veterans claim the new head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, stabbed them in the back by promising to meet with them and instead, fired off a letter trying to kill a bill that grants them Agent Orange benefits.

Wilkie sent a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R)-Georgia claiming, "science does not support extending Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water Navy Veterans."

"When I met with Secretary Wilkie at his confirmation hearing, he promised me a meeting on this subject," said John Wells, Executive Director of Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc.

Instead of a face-to-face, John Wells accuses Robert Wilke of betrayal.

Wilkie sent the letter to Isakson, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, which is now considering the legislation.

The letter claims the bill will cost more than anticipated and create a bigger claims backlog.

According to John Wells, Wilkie is distorting the facts.

"He's come out with inaccurate and inflammatory material designed to convince Senate Chairman Johnny Isakson to not move this bill forward," Wells said.

For years, the VA opposed extending benefits to Veterans who served on ships in the harbors, bays and territorial waters of Vietnam.

In June, the house unanimously passed the bill granting them benefits long denied.

Blue Water Navy Veterans contend Agent Orange seeped from rivers and streams into harbors, bays and territorial waters.

Ships unknowingly pulled in contaminated water, desalinating it for drinking, bathing and cooking.

As a result, Navy Veterans contend, Agent Orange-related illnesses are crippling and killing them, yet because they did not set foot on Vietnam soil, the VA will not presume those diseases are connected to herbicide exposure.

"They're not worried about taking care of the Veteran or spouse," Wells explained.

Wells charges, Secretary Wilkie is cutting out Veterans exposed to the deadly weed killer and cutting off support for their children born with impairments.

"Look, if Secretary Wilkie wanted to meet with me and say, 'I'm sorry, I don't buy this,' that's fair," said Wells.

"But the man promised to meet with me and he refused to meet with us. He broke his promise. That to me is a betrayal."

According to Wells, despite widespread support in the senate, this bill is being stalled by one person, Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who calls himself the "Veterans' Senator."

Isakson's Georgia office telephone number is 770-661-0999.

Source

Military update: VA rips 'Blue Water' Agent Orange bill, urges Senate to sink it

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Department of Veterans Affairs officials say they strongly oppose passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 299), which would extend Agent Orange disability benefits and health care to between 70,000 and 90,000 Veterans who served aboard ships in territorial waters off Vietnam during the war, and today suffer ailments associated with herbicides sprayed across its jungles for years.

The Blue Water Navy bill passed the House unanimously in late June and seemed certain to fly through the Senate, given reports of close coordination on the bill between Veterans’ affairs committees, and the House having negotiated a plan to pay for the benefits with major Veteran service organizations.

On Wednesday, however, with Robert Wilkie installed two days earlier as VA secretary, his undersecretary for benefits, Paul R. Lawrence, delivered a blistering attack on the Blue Water Navy bill, and on a proposal to test providing routine dental care to Veterans, during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.

Lawrence testified that there’s still no credible scientific evidence to support extending Agent Orange-related benefits to shipboard personnel who never went ashore in Vietnam or patrolled its rivers. Without such evidence, he said, it would be wrong, and would create a disastrous precedent, to award VA benefits.

“This committee set the standard to use science to be fair and consistent in cases such as this,” said Lawrence, referring to the Agent Orange Act of 1991. “Once that standard is removed from the equation, it becomes nearly impossible to adjudicate a claim of this type on the merits. The resulting lower threshold sets in motion the prospect of uncontrolled demands for (VA) support.”

Lawrence, who took charge of Veteran benefit programs in May, warned if HR 299 is enacted, it will “be referenced when other exposure claims are presented to this committee. At that point, Congress will be under greater pressure to accommodate these requests too, regardless of the evidence.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what damage Lawrence and his top official on post-deployment health issues, Dr. Ralph Erickson, inflicted on the popular Blue Water Navy bill. A majority of senators on the committee still spoke in favor.

But the Trump administration has reversed signals of support that a beleaguered VA Secretary, David Shulkin, gave Blue Water advocates in March.

The VA for years had opposed the legislation. The usual hardline softened a year after Shulkin became President Trump’s first VA Secretary when he told Rep. David Valado, R-Ga., lead sponsor of the House bill, “that these Veterans have waited too long and this is a responsibility that this country has.”

Shulkin noted that the VA lacked scientific evidence that shipboard personnel were exposed to dioxin. But he said his staff was “working hard to look at offsets” — cuts to other parts of the VA budget — to pay for Blue Water Navy benefits.

“And it is a high priority for us,” he added.

Two weeks later, Shulkin was fired, deepening a leadership vacuum at VA caused by political chaos at the White House. Trump initially nominated his White House physician, a Navy admiral, to replace Shulkin. The choice soon fell victim to controversy. The House, meanwhile, passed its Blue Water Navy bill after the Veterans affairs committee negotiated with major Veterans organizations a way to pay for it, by raising user fees modestly on VA guaranteed home loans.

Robert Wilkie became VA Secretary this past Monday. By Wednesday, there was no trace of the accommodating tone on the Blue Water Navy issue that Shulkin had expressed months earlier. Lawrence scorched the bill and its “pay for” plan.

“VA is opposed to paying for the provisions of this bill by increasing the cost that some Veterans must pay to access their (home loan) benefits. Veterans will either have to finance the VA funding fee with interest, or pay up front with cash. This means fewer Veterans will buy homes or (will) buy homes using non-VA options, potentially opening them to predator lenders,” Lawrence said.

He further argued that opening Agent Orange benefits to thousands more Veterans would stunt ongoing efforts to reduce the backlog of compensation claims on appeal, adding time and cost to claim processes.

In written testimony, Lawrence gave fresh estimates on the cost of the Blue Water Navy bill, at total of almost $7 billion over the first 10 years. Some senators pushed back at his attack on the bill, arguing it wouldn’t be needed if VA didn’t set a high bar for these Navy Veterans to gain benefits for conditions on VA’s list of 14 ailments linked to Agent Orange.

Erickson told senators most of the ailments presumed to be caused by Agent Orange also are tied to aging, therefore VA needs evidence of dioxin exposure for ships at sea. He said a Blue Water Navy review conducted by the Institute of Medicine in 2011 failed to find sufficient evidence of dioxin exposure.

He and Lawrence dismissed an oft-cited Australian study that was the scientific foundation for that government to award Agent Orange-related benefits to its shipboard Veterans. That study, said Lawrence, was based on an experiment involving distillation of water with presumed levels of dioxin near to shore. It was U.S. Navy policy to take on water for shipboard use more than 12-miles out to sea, to avoid contaminants, Erickson explained.

Rick Weidman, with Vietnam Veterans of America, made the strongest case in support of Blue Water Veterans. VA officials have misinterpreted the 2011 study, which did find it plausible that shipboard Veterans were exposed to dioxin. Given that Congress already presumes Veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam were exposed, and doesn’t try to calculate level of exposure, that benefit of the doubt should be applied to shipboard personnel too, Weidman said.

“How much (exposure) makes no difference,” he said. “You don’t know (the) difference for folks who served in the delta versus the central highlands where I served. Who knows? And you can’t put it together 40 years later.”

VA’s hardline appears to leave Senate Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in a tough spot. Veteran service organizations and leaders of the House Veterans Affairs Committee thought Isakson was set to endorse the bill and shepherd it swiftly toward enactment.

At the hearing, however, Isakson said “we have more work to do on these issues.” He promised the committee would work “deliberately” to understand all facets of the Blue Water bill, including whether the House plan to raise VA home loans fees was enough to pay for it. Isakson asked Lawrence whether charging non-disabled Veterans an extra $250 on every $100,000 in loan value would cover the cost of extending Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water Navy Veterans.

“Not in our opinion, no,” said Lawrence. Isakson nodded agreement.

“I did real estate sales my entire life,” Isakson said. “A lot of VA loans, FHA loans. You can make those numbers look like a lot of things. That is not a lot of money” if VA home loan fees are raised, as the House voted, from 2.25 percent of loan amounts to 2.4 percent, for Veterans with active duty service. “It’s variable too, and depends on number of loans that actually are closed” in any year, he said.

It seems the Blue Water Navy bill will be adrift in uncertainty for at least several more months, its future dependent on how Senate leaders react to stiffened resistance from the Trump administration.

Source

Blue Water Veterans Stalled? VA Vehemently Opposes New Legislation

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BWN Stalled

 

Paul Lawrence, Undersecretary for VA Benefits, recently unleashed a blistering attack against the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 229), which would extend disability benefits to at least 70,000 Vietnam Vets suffering from dioxin-related ailments.

Agent Orange, commonly used as a defoliant in the thick jungles of Vietnam, causes these ailments, and there is clear and convincing scientific evidence that these 70,000 Veterans were also exposed to this chemical.

These soldiers were shipboard personnel who generally patrolled about 12 miles off the coastline, but precedent does suggest that this distance does not preclude Agent Orange exposure. Also, Congress does not differentiate between levels of exposure among land-based Vietnam Vets, only whether they were exposed or not.

And yet…

VA is raring to go, citing “lack of sufficient scientific evidence” to grant these benefits, urging Senators to worry about “uncontrolled demands” for future VA benefits.

He specifically urged the Senate because this bill has already passed the House. UNANIMOUSLY. How rare must it be, in this age of polarized parties, that the House passes a bill unanimously?

As the former, doomed VA Secretary David Shulkin said of this legislation, “these Veterans have waited too long and this is a responsibility that this country has.”

Now, after blasting the bill, Blue Water Veterans may end up with nothing as the bill is stalled in the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

As it turns out, it is possible to be a discerning and conservative political official who is concerned about fiscal responsibility… and advocates for this legislation, given the evidence at hand. Shulkin was. At the very least, he refused to oppose Blue Water outright.

The House and Senate VA Committees have worked on this bill in close coordination and even started to figure out how to pay for it. That not only shows the extent of their commitment to Blue Water but their relative certainty that it eventually WILL be funded.

All $7 billion of it.

A massive 2011 study conducted by the Australian government shows ample evidence that shipboard personnel were, in fact, exposed to Agent Orange and similar dioxins, entitling them to disability benefits under that government.

Lawrence dismissed the impact of that study entirely.

He also stated that VA home loans, the aspect of VA’s budget that would be cut most to pay for this initiative, are too important to raise even minimally, evoking predatory lenders as the only possible alternative for Veterans who would otherwise pay a VA home loan normally.

In other words, “We will claim scientific uncertainty, as long as it helps us. You have evidence, but we have decided that it does not count for enough. We will prioritize deterring hypothetical predatory lenders over helping the real injured Veterans.”

Regardless of party lines, this sort of conduct is not reasonable. It is not governed by facts or logic. It is tribalism, and it is money. Our guy said to oppose this, so we will. It would be expensive, so we automatically do not want it. We will say anything we believe will make us look good, and nothing else.

This is what post-truth, “alternative facts” government really looks like.

A majority of Senators continue to support this legislation, so the immediate impact of this testimony is unclear. That said, it would be wise to expect months of further turmoil in the Senate about this.

What is your take on the agency’s flip on the Blue Water issue?

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Organizing Paperwork: Tips for Caregivers

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Caregivers Paperwork

 

Organizing paperwork is one way that a long-distance caregiver can be a big help. An important part of effective caregiving depends on keeping a great deal of information in order and up to date. Often, long-distance caregivers will need access to a parent’s or relative's personal, health, financial, and legal records.

Getting all this material together is a lot of work at first, and from far away it can seem even more challenging. But once you have gathered everything together, many other caregiving tasks will be easier. Maintaining current information about your parent’s health and medical care, as well as finances, home ownership, and other legal issues, lets you get a handle on what is going on and allows you to respond more quickly if there is a crisis.

If you do not see the care recipient often, one visit may not be enough time for you to get all the paperwork organized. Instead, try to focus on gathering the essentials first, and fill in the blanks as you go along. Talk with the older person and the primary caregiver about any missing information or documentation and how you might help to organize the records. It is also a good idea to make sure that all financial matters, including wills and life insurance policies, are in order. It will also help if someone has a durable power of attorney (the legal document naming one person to handle financial and property issues for another).

Your family member or friend may be reluctant to share personal information with you. Explain that you are not trying to invade their privacy or take over their personal lives—you are only trying to assemble what will be needed in the event of an emergency. Assure them that you will respect their privacy, and then keep your promise. If they are still uncomfortable, ask if they would be willing to work with an attorney (some lawyers specialize in elder affairs) or perhaps with another trusted family member or friend.

For a list of documents and other information to gather, see Getting Your Affairs In Order. Find more information about advance care planning.

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