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VA may not fight appeal of Navy veterans' benefits

Awarding benefits for war-related injuries is not always assured. Thousands of navy veterans are ineligible for veterans benefits for any disability from their exposure to chemical defoliants used in the Vietnam War, which have been associated with serious and rare cancers. However, the Department of Veterans' Affairs does not recommend appealing a federal court ruling awarding disability benefits to veterans who claim exposure to these chemicals during ship deployments off Vietnam's coast.

Under current VA rules, an estimated 90,000 veterans who served in the blue water navy may receive medical care for their illnesses through the VA. However, before they are eligible for disability benefits, which amount to several thousands of dollars each month, they must prove that their ailments are directly connected to their exposure to hazardous toxins while they were on active duty.

Other Vietnam veterans do not face this obstacle. A veteran who served on the shoreline may receive disability payments after contracting Parkinson's disease or prostate cancer, for example. However, a veteran who was on a ship a few miles away must provide proof of direct contact with hazardous chemicals.

In Jan., the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of advocates who claimed that it is almost impossible to obtain proof of exposure decades after military service. Any appeal by federal officials must be filed by late April.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie announced the department's position while testifying before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. He also said that other federal officials may support appealing the court ruling. However, the VA's position will play a substantial role in what the government ultimately does in this case.

VA officials previously argued that non-scientific standards for disability benefits could lead to a huge increase in claims. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that benefits will cost $1.1 billion over 10 years, but the VA claimed this could be as high as $5 billion. Nonetheless, legislators have been working on a bill that would address blue navy veterans and has called on the VA to drop its objections to providing disability benefits.

Legal representation may help veterans receive benefits for disabilities and long-term medical care. An attorney can assist with changing laws and rules governing their eligibility.

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