Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans will have to continue to wait until next year before the Department of Veterans Affairs begins to process their long-awaited Agent Orange disability benefits claims.
There was no indication from Congress or VA leaders during a Wednesday hearing on the subject that there was a plan to lift the delay put in place earlier this year.
About a week after Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law the Blue Water Vietnam Veterans Act -- a long-awaited measure to grant benefits to certain veterans who served in the waters off of Vietnam -- VA Secretary Robert Wilkie issued a stay on processing any Blue Water claims until January 2020, first reported by Connecting Vets.
Veterans and members of Congress have repeatedly called on Wilkie to lift the stay and begin processing at least the claims of the oldest or most critically ill. Veteran service organizations have appealed to the White House, asking Trump to lift the stay himself. Some veterans have gone so far as to file a lawsuit to lift the stay.
Dying veterans exposed to Agent Orange and widows of those already passed have come to Washington pleading for benefits.
So far, all efforts have been in vain. VA is sticking by the Jan. 1, 2020 date, 63 days away, and the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday did not change that.
"Our pleas were left unanswered," said Shane Liermann, DAV deputy legislative director for benefits. "We have not had any response from the White House."
VA Deputy Undersecretary for Field Operations Willie C. Clark Sr. thanked Congress for allowing VA to delay those claims.
"VA appreciates the authority Congress provided to (Wilkie) to stay pending Blue Water Navy claims until the law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020," Clark said. "I am confident that awarding these claims will begin on Jan. 1, 2020."
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said she was "concerned that the stay is overreaching and causes undue delays ... I question the need for a blanket stay. This work is far too important ... (We want to) ensure that Blue Water veterans receive benefits and care they are entitled to under the law ... They have waited too long."
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., asked Clark if any claims were being worked on during the stay.
"No," Clark said. "Our folks are not trained to do this work. We want to get this right. We have learned that we have rushed sometimes ... We want to get it right the first time ... We're not ready. That's why this stay is important."
"These people have waited too long," Bost countered. "Between now and January 2020, VA has a lot of work to do ... These veterans have been waiting decades to hear VA acknowledge their health challenges were caused by ... their service."
When asked if there were any plans to lift the stay before Jan. 1, 2020, VA spokeswoman Susan Carter told Connecting Vets, "no," adding that VA "will use the additional time Congress provided and VSOs supported" to prepare.
About 77,000 Blue Water veterans have previously submitted claims and been denied, VA leaders said. As many as 400,000 veterans or surviving family members could be eligible. All must file new claims, Congress members and VA leaders said.
"They have to make themselves known to us," said Beth Murphy, executive director of Veterans Benefits Administration Compensation Service.
Ranking Member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., himself a Vietnam-era veteran and a doctor, said he "fully expects" the stay will be lifted on Jan. 1, 2020, adding that he planned to again ask Wilkie to consider lifting the stay to begin processing claims for Blue Water veterans with terminal illnesses "who may not have the luxury of time."
But those claims could take anywhere from weeks to "many months," Murphy said.
Veteran service organizations, including DAV, VFW, VVA and NOVA testified to Congress their frustration and concerns how veterans whose claims are continually delayed by the stay and VA's refusal to be "transparent" during the process.
"It's been radio silence on this," said Diane Rauber, NOVA executive director.
"This is a self-inflicted wound for VBA ... creating bureaucratic barriers for veterans," said Ryan Galluci, VFW director of national veterans service. "Secretary Wilkie must lift the stay immediately. Waiting until January not only harms veterans but creates an unnecessary backlog for VA at a time we can ill afford it."
VA leaders said they were working on a "myriad things and many" including processing 20 million records, including Navy deck logs, to help identify eligible veterans. Eight VA offices will handle the claims, Clark said, and VA is hiring 800 employees and crafting training for employees who will process the claims. That training should be completed by mid-December, Clark said.
"We are prepared to be ready on Jan. 1," Clark said. "We will be ready without fail."