Blue Water Vietnam veterans are getting their disability benefits paid out by the Department of Veterans Affairs, but it might not be exactly how much they deserve, according to a new watchdog report.
The VA Inspector General’s Office found that while department staff have done a good job at getting benefits flowing to newly eligible veterans covered by the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act two years ago, nearly half of the claims decisions investigators reviewed from 2020 were “inaccurate.”
The mistakes total an estimated $37 million: about $12 million in underpayments based on veterans eligibility and $25 million more in excess payments to individuals.
“Employees did not always know how to correctly process these claims, particularly determining accurate retroactive effective dates for evaluations,” investigators stated in the IG report, released late last week. “[Benefits officials] should increase oversight to help ensure employees processing these claims clearly understand how to correctly evaluate and decide them.”
In a statement, VA officials told the Inspector General that they have improved training in recent months and put in place “special focused quality reviews” to address the problem.
At issue is a complex collection of rules which followed implementation of the 2019 bill granting presumptive benefits status to Blue Water Vietnam Veterans — individuals who served on ships off the coast of that country during the war, but never set foot on land.
For decades, VA has granted presumptive benefits status to all veterans who served on the ground in Vietnam for conditions related to exposure to Agent Orange, a powerful defoliant used extensively on jungles there. The chemicals are known to cause severe health issues, including rare cancers.
The presumptive benefits status allowed those individuals to skip lengthy (and sometimes impossible to verify) paperwork that they were poisoned by the chemicals if they contracted one of numerous diseases known to be linked to Agent Orange exposure.
Veterans who served at sea near Vietnam have maintained they were also exposed to the toxins, in run off from shore. But it took Congressional action in 2019 to grant them the same status as their land allies
At the time, VA officials said the change could make as many as 560,000 veterans eligible for fast-track benefits, although they conceded that number was likely much smaller given how many troops were already receiving help for other qualifying conditions (such as separate ground tours or missions.)
The Inspector General’s report praises VA for their outreach on the issue and work processing claims thus far, saying that “[benefits staff] has generally determined herbicide exposure for Blue Water Navy veterans correctly.”
But they also noted that the rules regarding the amount of benefits to be paid out remain a challenge.
“Interviewed employees at multiple regional offices noted that Blue Water Navy claims are more likely to involve retroactive awards, which can be quite complex,” the report stated.
In some cases, the start date for payouts is the first day veterans file a claim. In others, the benefits can be pushed back retroactively only to the start of the 2019 law. Staff were more likely to award extra retroactive benefits incorrectly than underestimate the payout start date.
To fix the problem, investigators called for more training and oversight work. VA officials said both improvements are already underway, based on lessons learned after last year.
The full report is available on the Inspector General’s web site.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.