“Blue Water” veterans, approximately 90,000 who served on Navy ships in the territorial waters off the coast of Vietnam are still waiting for legislation to be passed that will allow them the presumptive classifications of those who served on the ground for Agent Orange exposures. The reasoning is that those on Navy ships were fitted with potable water taken from groundwater sources on land in Vietnam as well as took on food supplies from areas that were sprayed with the herbicide. Since the exposure element was often sometimes higher than those who actually had boots on the ground but were nowhere near exposure areas, these “blue water” veteran have been fighting for their presumptive rights for over two decades.
The House of Representatives has passed the legislation, which has a lengthy history of being passed off from one agency to another. The final, we hope, gateway for passage is the Senate, who is being pushed to pass the legislation, to allow veterans who have been waiting for two generations for health care and compensation for diseases and illnesses their brothers-in-arms have been receiving for only the difference of stepping on shore.
The Blue Water Distinction
Are there scientific reasons that the Navy veterans are not being granted presumption compared to Army or “boots on the ground” veterans? No. According to many scientific studies, many Navy veterans actually have just as much risk of exposure due to the contaminated groundwater used to supply their ships with drinking, cooking, and bathing water, as well as the potential for contaminated food sources by bringing locally, sources food onboard when in port.
The hold up is the cost. The VA will have enormous amounts of retro payments to make to veterans who have filed claims in the last 30 years who will be affected by the passage of this legislation. The unfortunate thing that the VA never seems to understand is that doing the right thing, passing this when the originally passed presumption for “boots on the ground” veterans and looking at the real science that showed the exposures to all veterans who ate the local food and drank the local water; the VA’s payout would be so much less than it will be today.
The VA’s Shuffling Costs
It doesn’t matter what the cost is when it comes to trying to discount the Blue Water claims, however. The VA spent over $70 million with the CDC to conduct an Agent Orange study that was so poorly conducted the study outcomes were completely useless. The VA also requested that Congress disregard an Australian study because the VA could not produce a study to contradict the Australian one. Then, to compound matters, the military never kept records of how far ships were from the shore, so once this legislation is passed, proving a ship was within the 12-mile limit will be difficult if not impossible for many veterans. But, remember, the VA is supposed to be non-adversarial towards veterans.
The VA has spent billions of dollars fighting against veterans and denying claims for years and forcing veterans to get representation, expensive medical opinions, lose their homes, and suffer increased illness due to not being able to afford healthcare; all in the name of saving a buck. But the bottom line is, the soft costs involved are costing them more than just awarding the disability in the first place.
The shuffling of papers and reviewing of denials and reading of appeals and developing of evidence over the course of the average appeal takes just over 4 years (1500+ days). There are just over 337,000 employees at the VA. In FY 2017, they decided 87,000 claims. That comes out to just under 4 decisions per employee. If we break that down by salary (now mind you, I am not an economist nor do I have access to the actual figures, these are all educated estimates) with one person dedicated to four cases per year, and we took that salary, plus benefits, overhead (technology, supplies, travel and training expenses, etc); is closer to $200,000 a year, that is close to $1 million dollars in benefits, training, overhead, insurance, payroll, etc. the VA has paid to deny less than 4 claim for 5 years. (estimated based on the average DRO salary).
What’s the Solution?
During that 5 years, that same $1 million could have paid individual unemployability or 100% rating for 5.5 veterans. Yes, it costs about the same to deny 3.8 veterans as it does to pay 5.5 veterans full 100% benefits. And, if you consider that not every veteran is going to get 100% or IU, we can estimate that we are paying almost twice to deny a claim as to what it costs to just award it in the first place.
So, when the administration says that they are trying to save money, maybe we should tell them to put their money where their mouths are. There are currently about 90,000 Blue Water veterans who have been waiting for 16 years for benefits since they were originally dealt out of the presumptive issue. At what cost? Apparently, way more than it would have to approve the legislation back in 2002 when the legislation changed to exclude Blue Water. It is time for the government to stop worrying about what it is going to cost us today because what it is costing up tomorrow is a lot more financially and in terms of the care and respect we are giving our veterans. And in our efforts to save money, we continue to waste more and more of it along the way.
UPDATE: As of January 29th, 2019, Blue Water Veterans Now Get Agent Orange Rights