Sense of Congress on Agent Orange Blue Water Issue           FRA Article 28 September 2016
 
Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (NY) and Senator Chuck Grassley (IA), have introduced a non-binding Sense of Congress (H Con Res 161 and S Con Res 51 respectively) expressing support for those who served in the bays, harbors, and territorial seas of the Republic of Vietnam between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, and should be presumed to have been exposed to the toxin Agent Orange and should be eligible for all related Federal benefits that come with such presumption under the Agent Orange Act of 1991.
While these measures, if passed, are non-binding, it will show Congressional support for the Blue Water Navy veterans and will hopefully convince the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide this presumption by regulation.

  

Vietnam Veterans and Families Talk Damages of Agent Orange in Des Moines

POSTED 10:24 PM, APRIL 23, 2016, BY REID CHANDLER
DES MOINES, Iowa - Over 300 Iowans gathered in Des Moines Saturday to talk about an issue from 40 years ago.
But the issue is one Vietnam War veterans and their families say is haunting them to this day.
Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. government during the Vietnam War to flush enemy soldiers out of the jungle, contains a toxic dioxin chemical - a carcinogen. It's been linked as a cause for 14 diseases, with three more potentially being added to the list this summer. After the Vietnam War, the effects of exposure to Agent Orange followed thousands of soldiers home, and was passed genetically onto their offspring.

"It's beyond reassuring - it's like being an orphan all your life, and you find out...I'm not an orphan anymore! Somebody finally accepts me for my truth, because it's their truth too," said Patty Spencer Burdette, the widow of a Vietnam War veteran who died from health complications caused by Agent Orange exposure.

"My husband died looking like a skeleton with skin. And the VA didn't know what it was," she said. "We were all alone, because of course, nobody was admitting to Agent Orange - what it could do."

Spencer Burdette's son, Thomas, was born with complications due to the exposure his dad received in Vietnam. He developed thyroid cancer, among other illnesses, throughout his life

"You can't go back and change anything," she said. "But to go back, to work on something that maybe will do something good for people who can still use the good now - the help now - that's hope."

Helping future soldiers is what Iowans like Spencer Burdette are hoping to do. A petition signed by 131 attendants at Saturday's symposium seeks to urge lawmakers to support legislation in Congress that would continue to fund Agent Orange research.
"We have a whole new group of veterans who are coming on through the Iraq and Afghan wars - the Mideast wars - and they've also been very exposed," said Dan Gannon.

Possible exposure to soldiers in the Middle East does not include Agent Orange, Gannon says; rather, exposure to toxic chemicals in warzones could be putting soldiers at risk when they return home.

"It's repeating itself over and over, and it's time we take a look at this," Gannon said.

Senator Joni Ernst is the only member of Iowa's Congressional delegation that has not yet confirmed her support of the bill in the U.S. Senate to fund Agent Orange research. A spokeswoman for the senator gave Channel 13 News the following comment:
"Senator Ernst believes we absolutely must ensure that our veterans receive the care they deserve after being exposed to Agent Orange. However, with the VA’s continued mismanagement, she has concerns over authorizing greater research on Agent Orange to the VA at this point. She remains committed to working with her colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reform the VA and improve the delivery of health care and enhance access to care by providing veterans greater choice in non-VA care."

Agent Orange benefit screening process scrutinized in Congress

Added 5 Apr 16

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is looking into whether a contractor thoroughly reviewed the files of Vietnam veterans who might deserve benefits for illnesses linked to exposure to Agent Orange.
A contractor that prescreens veteran files for evidence of those illnesses often spent just minutes reviewing each file, internal company documents show.
The contractor, QTC Medical Services, reviewed files for 160,000 veterans. The company was paid approximately $300 for every file reviewed under 2 inches thick and $350 for files more than 2 inches thick.
An unsealed lawsuit and contract documents obtained by McClatchy shed light on the contractor’s prescreening process.
The suit alleges that QTC — a Lockheed Martin company — did not give its employees the necessary training to spot evidence of illnesses linked to Agent Orange and pressured employees to work at a pace that made it impossible to thoroughly review the file.
“This lawsuit raises a number of serious questions,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a statement to McClatchy. “Every veteran’s VA claim deserves a thorough and objective review. Our investigation will continue until we are satisfied that’s the case in this situation.”
QTC Medical Services and Lockheed Martin, citing ongoing litigation, declined to comment.
Agent Orange benefits are a moving target for the Department of Veterans Affairs. An ongoing class-action lawsuit — Nehmer v. Department of Veterans Affairs — requires the VA to review old veteran claims when new illnesses are linked to Agent Orange exposure.
That gives veterans who were previously denied benefits an updated review.
QTC reviewed 65,000 files for ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and hairy cell leukemia potentially linked to herbicide exposure in Vietnam, as well as 95,000 files for peripheral neuropathy. Only the files flagged by QTC as potentially eligible were sent back to the VA for a final decision.
The National Veterans Legal Services Program, who filed the class-action suit, told McClatchy that since 2010, it has identified more than 1,600 cases in which the VA failed to recognize and pay the required retroactive Agent Orange compensation, resulting in an additional $42 million being paid to veterans and their survivors.
Barton Stichman, NVLSP’s joint executive director, said the program is paying close attention to the allegations against QTC to see if prescreening is where veterans are falling through the cracks.
“If the contract or QTC did not ensure a process that was compliant with the Nehmer Court Orders, then the cases that were not flagged by QTC would have to be reviewed again.” Stichman said.
The lawsuit against QTC, brought by former claims file analyst David Vatan, was dismissed on grounds that Vatan did not know the terms of the contract, so whatever evidence he presented about how QTC performed the reviews, he could not prove the company misrepresented its work. Vatan and his attorneys have appealed.
McClatchy obtained the full contract with QTC through a Freedom of Information Act request.
QTC’s contract stipulates the company must train its employees before they review files for Agent Orange-related conditions based on a guide provided by the VA. Vatan’s lawsuit alleges he and other analysts were not formally trained and were never given the VA’s training guide.
Instead, analysts were given a “reference manual” from QTC that omits much of the background information on relevant medical conditions included in the VA’s guide, as well as details about what supporting evidence for benefit eligibility might look like in a veteran’s file.
The contract also states that QTC must review each veteran’s entire file.
But QTC’s reference guide permits analysts to abbreviate the process, using summaries of prior benefit decisions printed on colored sheets of paper.
QTC’s senior vice president of operations, Dr. Margie Shahani, testified to Congress in 2008 that it would take a qualified analyst 60 to 90 minutes to review each claim file, an equivalent of seven or eight files per day.
Internal documents show QTC’s analysts worked much faster under a competitive performance rating system. Some analysts averaged nearly 30 claims per day and those who reviewed fewer than 12 to 15 were reprimanded for poor performance.
In the response to Vatan’s complaint, Lockheed Martin’s lawyers argued the contract did not spell out how much time they should spend on each file. “There is nothing inherently wrong with QTC encouraging people to work quickly,” the motion reads.
When one of his colleagues reported reviewing 50 files in a day, Vatan complained to a Lockheed Martin ethics officer. Vatan pointed out that 50 files a day would leave the analyst just 12 minutes per file if he or she worked two hours of overtime and took no breaks. “It takes 10-12 minutes for an experienced (analyst) to process one file in the computer system alone,” Vatan said. “How was the review conducted?’
Both the Department of Justice and the VA Office of the Inspector General investigated the allegations in the lawsuit, but neither chose to intervene and neither would comment on their investigation.
In fiscal year 2015, QTC’s various contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs exceeded $175 million.
©2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com
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State resolution encourages congressional support of Blue Water Navy veterans

Published April 02. 2016 6:29PM | Updated April 02. 2016 6:46PM
By Julia Bergman  Day staff writer
Connecticut may join a growing list of states that have passed resolutions urging Congress to restore the presumption that Blue Water Navy veterans, who served on ships in the coastal waters of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, were exposed to Agent Orange during their service, making them eligible for certain federal veterans' benefits.
While it's come up in past legislative sessions of the Connecticut General Assembly, this is the first time that the resolution has made it out of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed herbicides, named Agent Orange for the orange-striped barrels in which the herbicide mixture was stored, over Vietnam to destroy vegetation used by the enemy to hide.
The herbicides contained dioxin, a chemical that "has been linked to a number of serious and disabling illnesses affecting thousands of veterans," the resolution says.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 recognizes certain diseases linked to chemical exposure as service-connected diseases among veterans who served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975.
But veterans must prove they had boots on the ground or entered inland waterways anytime during the aforementioned period to be eligible for federal Department of Veterans' Affairs benefits.
"Blue Water Veterans must have actually stepped foot on the land of Vietnam or served on its inland waterways anytime between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 to be presumed to have been exposed to herbicides when claiming service-connection for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure," the VA's website says.
Raymond Melninkaitis, director of corporate resources for the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, guessed that 8,000 of the estimated 90,000 Blue Water Navy Veterans live in Connecticut.
"Nearly 90,000 Blue Water vets are depending on you," Melninkaitis testified during a Feb. 23 public hearing of the state Veterans Affairs Committee.
"We are dealing with serious health issues that range from cancer to diabetes, and from Parkinson's to heart disease. Many of these diseases have made it nearly impossible for some of us to get steady work," he told the panel.
The association started an online petition, titled "Give the Vietnam Blue Water Navy Veterans their presumptive rights," which has received nearly 75,000 signatures.
The petition urges Congress to pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015, introduced in both the House and Senate, that would restore presumptive status to Blue Water Navy vets.
"Presumptive status provides expedited claims processing for access to appropriate disability compensation and medical care for Vietnam veterans diagnosed with such illnesses as Type II diabetes, Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, prostate cancer, Parkinson's disease, multiple myeloma, peripheral neuropathy, AL amyloidosis, respiratory cancers, soft tissue carcinomas and other diseases yet to be identified," the joint resolution in Connecticut says in part.
The resolution, which was passed by the state Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this month, requires approval by both the state House and Senate.
If passed, Connecticut will join 14 other states that have passed similar resolutions, according to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association.
Two Blue Water Navy veterans who live in Connecticut also testified at the committee's Feb. 23 public hearing.
Paul Scappaticci of Manchester said he was stationed in the "immediate coastal waters" of Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange through the ship's water supply.
"I ingested the Agent Orange through the food and beverages and showering," Scappaticci testified.
He said he suffers from Type II diabetes, neuropathy in his upper and lower extremities, skin cancer, thyroid cancer and an aggressive form of prostate cancer, the same illnesses as his "brothers who had boots on the ground."
A recently released report from the Institute of Medicine concludes that much still isn't known about the health consequences of Agent Orange.
In his testimony, William Durant Johnstone of New Britain offered several avenues for how Agent Orange got into Danang Harbor, which he said he entered about 23 times while serving on the Navy cruisers USS Providence (CLG-6) and USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5) from November 1967 through March 1970.
"Less than a mile from Danang Harbor and 28 feet above sea level is Danang Airport. This airport was one of the distributions points for Operation Ranch Hand, the operation that delivered out Agent Orange throughout Vietnam. There was a drainage ditch that ran from the airport directly into the harbor," Johnstone said.
The federal VA recently denied Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans who, like Johnstone and Scappaticci, contend they were exposed to it during their wartime service.