VA Renews Opposition to Agent Orange Benefits for Blue Water Navy Vets

A Vietnam veteran listens as Agent Orange expert and military historian Paul Sutton addresses the group during a town hall meeting held at the New Jersey State council, Vietnam Veterans of America, at VFW Post 809 in Little Ferry, N.J., on Sept. 27, 2015. (Jim Anness/ via AP)

A Vietnam veteran listens as Agent Orange expert and military historian Paul Sutton addresses the group during a town hall meeting held at the New Jersey State council, Vietnam Veterans of America, at VFW Post 809 in Little Ferry, N.J., on Sept. 27, 2015. (Jim Anness/ via AP)
18 Jan 2019 | By Richard Sisk
The Department of Veterans Affairs shows no signs of backing off opposition to extending Agent Orange health care and benefits to “Blue Water Navy” Vietnam veterans, setting up another major battle this year with veterans groups and overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate.
The VA still lacks “sufficient evidence” to prove a presumptive link between service off the coast of Vietnam and the illnesses caused by the widespread use of the defoliant Agent Orange, Paul Lawrence, the VA’s under secretary and head of the Veterans Benefits Administration, said Thursday.

“In terms of presumptives, they come with a real requirement of sufficient evidence to indicate it’s warranted,” he said in a panel discussion on a VA Town Hall webcast.
Veterans who served on the ground or on the inland waterways of Vietnam are now eligible for Agent Orange health care and benefits. But existing studies do not show definitive causation between the illnesses suffered by the estimated 90,000 Blue Water Navy veterans and the use of Agent Orange, Lawrence said.
“We understand the situation,” he said. “We talked about having more studies in 2019 that would give us more insight into what the causation was and the definitive conclusions behind it.”
He gave no indication of when the studies might be completed.
Blue Water veterans can file a claim, which will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Lawrence said, but they “must be supported by science.”
He took a similar position on claims by veterans that they suffered illnesses from the toxic fumes of the burn pits used in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying those claims also must be supported by scientific evidence.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by veterans for damages against companies that managed the open-air burn pits.
Last August, Lawrence and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie stunned Congress by announcing their opposition to a bill extending Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water sailors that had overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate.
The bill had passed 382-0 in the House and appeared headed to easy passage in the Senate with the support of Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
However, Lawrence, at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, said, “It’s difficult to hear from veterans who are ill,” but “there is no conclusive science” from a report by the Institute of Medicine to show a service connection.
Major veterans service organizations (VSOs) disputed Lawrence on the evidence, but the bill failed in December when Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, citing the costs, blocked a Senate vote.
The Congressional Budget Office had estimated that about 90,000 sailors could be covered by the bill, which would likely cost about $1.1 billion over 10 years.
Last week, House Democrats reintroduced the “Blue Water Navy” bill, setting up another lengthy battle with the VA on extending Agent Orange benefits.
In a statement, Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, the new chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said, “We must get to work and finally secure the benefits our Blue Water Navy veterans earned over 40 years ago.”
On Thursday, three VSOs — the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars — said that passage of the Blue Water Navy bill would be at the top of their legislative agenda for 2019.
“One of our key legislative concerns is ensuring that veterans who were exposed to dangerous toxic chemicals and other environment hazards during their service receive full compensation and other earned benefits,” DAV National Commander Dennis Nixon said in a statement.
— Richard Sisk can be reached at

VA Official: No ‘Secret Plan’ to Privatize Health Care Under Mission Act

Dr. Richard Stone, then VA's principal deputy under secretary of health, speaks at a planning summit in March 2016. (Kate Viggiano/Veterans Affairs)

Dr. Richard Stone, then VA’s principal deputy under secretary of health, speaks at a planning summit in March 2016. (Kate Viggiano/Veterans Affairs)
18 Jan 2019 | By Richard Sisk
The head of the Veterans Health Administration said Thursday that there is no “secret plan” to privatize Department of Veterans Affairs health care under the Mission Act, which expands community-care options and has repeatedly been championed by President Donald Trump.
“There is no such plan,” said Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the VHA and its system of more than 170 medical centers and 1,000 clinics nationwide.

Talk of privatization “creates fear and trepidation among our 341,000 brothers and sisters that call themselves employees of the VHA,” he said. “Let me assure you that if you’re an employee of the VA, there’s no plan to privatize. Your job is safe; stay with us.”
The question of privatization loomed over the Mission Act before and after it was passed last year with the intent of consolidating and streamlining the problem-plagued Choice program.
In signing the Mission Act into law last June, Trump said, “All during the campaign, I’d go out and say, ‘Why can’t they just go see a doctor instead of standing in line for weeks and weeks and weeks?’ Now they can go see a doctor. It’s going to be great.”
Despite continuing problems with access, Stone, a former deputy surgeon general of the Army and recipient of the Combat Action Badge, said that veterans themselves have shown that they prefer the VA to private, or community care.
“We can offer access to health care at unprecedented rates” at the VHA, the nation’s largest health care system, he said.
In calendar year 2018, “we did more than 58 million appointments with veterans. That’s 3.7 million more than four years ago,” Stone said. In addition, the VHA has cut wait times for urgent appointments from 19 days in 2014 to two days last year.
“And we continue to get better,” he said.
Stone made the comments at one of the VA’s periodic webcast Town Halls on issues facing the department.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie opened the webcast, pointing to recent studies by the Partnership for Public Service and Dartmouth showing that the VA is “one of the best places to work” in government, and also stating that the VHA provides health care that is as good or better than the private sector.
Wilkie listed his priorities going forward as curbing veteran suicides, implementing the Mission Act, and putting in place new electronic health records to make VA and Defense Department systems interoperable.
He said the VA had recently awarded contracts that could be worth $55 billion through 2026 for implementing the Mission Act for VA Regions 1, 2 and 3, covering 36 states, plus Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The contracts went to Optum Public Sector Solutions Inc., the government-services branch of Optum, the health services arm of UnitedHealth Group. Another regional contract is expected to be awarded in April and two more in December, Wilkie said.
— Richard Sisk can be reached at
Related Topics
Military Headlines Department of Veterans Affairs – VA Robert Wilkie
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Unclaimed veterans buried with dignity, thanks to strangers By: Adrian Sainz, The Associated Press and Karen Pulfer Focht, The Associated Press  

In this Jan. 17, 2019, photo, a retired U.S. Marine master gunnery sergeant salutes three Memphis veterans, Wesley Russell, 76, Arnold Klechka, 71, Charles Fox, 60, who died this past fall and whose remains were unclaimed, in Memphis, Tenn. (Karen Pulfer Focht/AP)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When the flags were removed from the caskets and folded with military precision, there were no family members there to receive them.
So, the banners were passed, hand-to-hand, through the crowd.
Some mourners wept as they clutched the flags briefly. Others kissed them. But the three veterans laid to rest on a rainy Memphis morning were strangers to most of those who gathered to honor their memory.

The service was part of a national effort by funeral homes, medical examiners, state and federal veterans’ affairs departments, and local veterans’ groups to pay final respects to members of the military whose bodies were not claimed by any relatives. Since 2000, Dignity Memorial and other funeral homes in more than 30 cities have organized about 3,000 funerals for soldiers, sailors and Marines who died alone, but still deserved a dignified funeral and burial, said Jeff Berry, Dignity’s general manager in Knoxville.
Soldiers Arnold M. Klechka, 71, and Wesley Russell, 76, and Marine Charles B. Fox, 60, were laid to rest in a service attended by about 700 people at West Tennessee Veterans Cemetery in Memphis on Thursday. There was a gun salute, and a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.”

In this Jan. 17, 2019, photo, a flag draped coffin is moved during a funeral for three Memphis veterans, Wesley Russell, 76, Arnold Klechka, 71, Charles Fox, 60, who died this past fall and whose remains were unclaimed in Memphis, Tenn. (Karen Pulfer Focht/AP)
But none of them had family members present.

Amelia Callicott did show up. She wept during the service, thinking of her late father and husband, who both served in the military. Callicott said she learned about the service through friends and Facebook. She felt a duty to honor the men.
“It touched my heart when no one came to claim these gentlemen, these soldiers, because they fought for our freedom,” said Callicott, 69. “Any serviceman, they’re just like family to me, and I just can’t see laying them to rest without going and seeing their final moments, to say goodbye.”
Organizing the funerals, which are fairly commonplace in Tennessee, requires a lot of teamwork.

Berry said the process usually begins with county medical examiners or local coroners, who contact state or national veterans’ cemeteries with names of people whose bodies have gone unclaimed. They typically were either homeless or had no surviving relatives to claim them.
And some have had surviving family members who did not want to claim them.

The cemeteries determine whether the service members were honorably discharged. If they were, medical examiners or the cemeteries then contact Dignity, which is owned by Service Corporation International, or one of its partner funeral homes. A funeral director then sets up the memorial service, and the funeral home covers the cost, Berry said.
Cemetery directors can file claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for grave markers or placards for columbariums, according to the Tennessee Department of Veterans’ Services. The VA also gives money to individuals or entities that provide burials, caskets and transportation to cemeteries for unclaimed deceased vets.

In this Jan. 17, 2019, photo, two elderly veterans were among the last to arrive at a service to bury three Memphis veterans who died this past fall and whose remains were unclaimed in Memphis, Tenn. The veterans were buried at the West Tennessee Veterans Cemetery with honors. (Karen Pulfer Focht/AP)
Memorial services are publicized through news outlets, veterans’ groups like the American Legion, or social media. Honor Guard and other active military members attend, but it’s the strangers who come out of respect for the military and the dead who bring dignity to the occasion.
A service for unclaimed veterans is planned in the coming weeks at East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery in Knoxville, Berry said.
“Most of the time, it’s folks that had no knowledge of the person in life,” Berry said. “One thing I’ve learned in working with the veterans is that they are a tight knit group. They really support each other. It’s like a band of brothers or sisters.”

During the Memphis ceremony, funeral director Gary Taylor thanked those who showed up.
Then, he spoke directly to the caskets.
“Today, we salute you,” Taylor said. “Today we all claim you as our own.”

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