WASHINGTON, D.C. ― At two events Tuesday on Capitol Hill, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) continued his push to improve care for Veterans affected by exposure to toxic fumes from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan: during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, and at the 2019 Congressional Burn Pits Briefing.
During the hearing, Udall questioned Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie on his commitment to continuing burn pit exposure research and urged Wilkie to recognize burn pit exposure as a presumed service-connected condition, a standard that would sufficiently acknowledge the negative effects of burn pits and would make it easier for Veterans to receive care.
“Last year’s appropriation of $27 million supports a partnership between the VA and [Department of Energy] for Big Data Science. And much of the work is being done by researchers at New Mexico’s own Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. I would encourage you to continue and increase your work with the national labs. Do you support making the Big Data Science program an annual appropriation? To expand the program to benefit more Veterans? For instance, expand data analysis of Veterans who were exposed to burn pits?,” Udall asked Wilkie.
Wilkie responded that he “would not see what happened to Veterans from Vietnam and Agent Orange happen again,” referring to the Veterans exposed to Agent Orange who had to endure decades of delay before finally receiving VA care and benefits. Wilkie committed to “doing everything [VA] can so we don’t see a repeat of what happened with Agent Orange.”
Udall followed up on this statement, asking, “Over the past two years, Congress has appropriated $10 million to improve and expand the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which was established through legislation I introduced in 2011. This year, you did not request additional funds for this account. Why not and could you explain how you intend to follow up on the commitment you made?”
In response, Dr. Richard A. Stone, the executive-in-charge of the Veterans Health Administration, himself a burn pit-exposed Veteran, replied that “we must continue to work to define what the exact effects of exposure to these agents are.”
Finally, Udall urged Wilkie to “aggressively do the work” to establish a service presumption for medical conditions that result from burn pit exposure. By recognizing burn pit exposure as a presumed service-connected condition, the VA could ensure that Veterans would no longer have to jump through hoops in order to receive the care and treatment they are owed.
Udall has long championed efforts in Congress to ensure that Veterans exposed to toxic burn pits receive better access to the medical treatment they need. In 2013, Udall co-authored legislation to establish a burn pit registry -- similar to the one created for Agent Orange after the Vietnam War -- to help Veterans, doctors, and the VA monitor Veterans' health and ultimately improve care for Veterans that may have been exposed to toxic chemicals while they were deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. This year, Udall introduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate, the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act, to further strengthen and enhance the burn pit registry.
Last month, Udall met with Wilkie to discuss the urgent need to enact this bipartisan legislation to help Veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. Udall also raised concerns regarding staffing shortages and decreasing capabilities at the New Mexico VA Health Care System, and other issues critical to ensuring Veterans in New Mexico receive the benefits they have earned.
Earlier in the day, Udall also urged Congress to help Veterans exposed to burn pits during his remarks at the 2019 Congressional Burn Pits Briefing, which focused on Congress’s ongoing legislative efforts to support Veterans and those impacted by burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Our government must make sure these patriots receive care for the illnesses and injuries they received in service to our nation. It’s as simple as that,” said Udall. “And if the VA requires additional research -- the federal government should fast track it.”
“Let’s work together to make sure the Senate passes the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act,” Udall continued. “To make sure the VA expeditiously and effectively utilizes the additional $5 million dollars it received. And make sure the necessary research is done to establish eligibility, secure treatment, and save Veterans’ lives.”
The full text of Udall’s remarks as prepared for delivery is below.
Thank you Burn Pits 360 for your tireless work on behalf of burn pit victims. Burn Pits 360 has helped so many Veterans connect with critical health care and social services. And your advocacy before Congress has made the difference. Making sure that service men and women exposed to burn pits receive the care they have earned must be a bipartisan priority in Congress.
Two of my constituents — Master Seargent Jessey Baca and his wife Maria — introduced me to this issue. And inspired my years of work on it.
Jessey risked his life maintaining fighter jets during two tours in Iraq. Jessey and Maria came to me after his tours of duty – worried that his exposure to burn pits overseas caused his debilitating constrictive bronchiolitis. Jessey and Maria have faced his illnesses with courage and grace. And they have fought for other Veterans to make sure they get the treatment they need and deserve.
Like Leroy and Rosie Torres, courageous founders of Burn Pits 360, and so many of you here today.
The use of pits to burn toxins and hazardous chemicals was widespread in Iran and Afghanistan. And tens of thousands of brave men and women were exposed.
I’m proud to have introduced the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry. Its passage in 2013 established the registry we know today — which now has more than 173,000 service members and Veterans on it.
That’s an accomplishment.
Last year, in the Defense Appropriations bill, we secured an additional $5 million dollars to improve the burn pit registry in accordance with the recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences.
And we pushed the Veterans Administration to work with the Department of Defense to research rare cancers that often result from exposure to burn pits.
We have made progress. But our work is far from over.
Our goal is to recognize burn pit exposure as a presumptive service connection.
The VA says it wants more documentation. So, we won’t rest until we get this done.
In February, we introduced the bipartisan, bicameral Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act.
The House of Representatives already passed that bill -- unanimously. I’m glad Representatives Castro and Ruiz are here today. They are leaders on this issue.
That bill makes sure that the registry can be updated with the cause of death of a registered individual; Allows a designated individual or immediate family member to report the cause of death of a registered individua, and establishes a process for a registered individual to designate who can report to the registry on their behalf.
The Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act is in the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. And we must push for it to be heard. This is a bipartisan bill. And there is no good reason the Senate should not quickly pass it, like the House did.
Last month, I personally met with Secretary Wilkie to urge him to support the act.
I also expressed concern with the VA’s recommendation to cut $17 million dollars from its medical research budget. I’m worried this cut would slice into burn pit research, as well as other important research essential to the health and well-being of Veterans.
I pressed the Secretary to reverse that recommendation and to commit to funding the research necessary to establish a service presumption. Because Veterans sickened by burn pits deserve eligibility for life-saving health care.
Our government must make sure these patriots receive care for the illnesses and injuries they received in service to our nation. It’s as simple as that.
And if the VA requires additional research -- the federal government should fast track it.
Everyone here today understands the imperative of this work.
Let’s work together to make sure the Senate passes the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act. To make sure the VA expeditiously and effectively utilizes the additional $5 million dollars it received.
And make sure the necessary research is done to establish eligibility, secure treatment, and save Veterans’ lives.