“If you commit to a war, if you commit to sending any American into combat…it ought to be a matter of simple fact that we cover illnesses that that veteran has afterward,” said Blumenthal
[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – In case you missed it, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, questioned Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Denis McDonough yesterday during a hearing on the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2021. The comprehensive legislation would address the healthcare and benefit needs of veterans exposed to dangerous toxins.
“When we go into a war, these kinds of healthcare coverage are part of the cost of that war. They’re not something we think about after. We have to change America’s state of mind,” Blumenthal remarked.
Passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month, the Honoring our PACT Act would streamline the VA’s review process for establishing toxic exposure presumptions, require medical exams and opinions for certain veterans with toxic exposure disability claims, and treat toxic exposure as a cost of war by addressing the full range of issues impacting toxic-exposed veterans, including access to earned benefits and healthcare.
“You know, a lot of these folks who are here with us today, for them, this is personal,” Blumenthal said of veterans exposed to dangerous toxins attending yesterday’s hearing. “A lot of people are going to wake up tomorrow morning and have to go through a full day wondering and worrying about their families. So time is not on our side here, nor was it on the side of the Agent Orange Vietnam veterans because they were dying and many of them are now dying.”
While Blumenthal praised the legislation as, “a great start” and said it’s, “very important and will change people’s lives,” he also urged Secretary McDonough to continue focusing on Palomares and K2 veterans. Many of the 1,600 veterans who responded to the 1966 nuclear accident in Palomares, Spain were sent to the site without protective clothing or warning of potential dangers, and were subjected to dangerous levels of radiation. As many as 15,000 U.S. servicemembers deployed to K2 Air Base—an old Soviet military site leased to the U.S. from the Uzbek government between 2001 and 2005—were exposed to multiple cancer-causing toxic chemicals and radiological hazards during their deployments.
“I would like to see that process accelerated,” Blumenthal said of VA efforts to seek information on K2 exposure opportunities. “I’d like to see it telescoped and the same with Palomares.”
The transcript of Blumenthal’s remarks is copied below:
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT): Thanks Mr. Chairman. Thank you to you and the Ranking Member for your work on the PACT Act which has been a long time coming. It’s the result of a lot of years work on a bipartisan basis and I think it will accomplish a great deal and thank you Secretary McDonough for your full throated endorsement of it and to the President of the United States who has brought leadership I think that has opened a new era in presidential support for the VA.
Very significantly, we are recognizing National Vietnam Veterans Day which is a very important reminder of the battle and it was a real fight to get recognition for Agent Orange. The VA had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the scientific real world. In fact, even to the point of defying a court order, incredibly the VA defied a court order to resist. It said the cost of the presumption for Agent Orange so two points, number one to go back to Senator Sanders’ remark, when we go into a war, these kinds of healthcare coverage are part of the cost of that war, they’re not something we think about after. We have to change America’s state of mind. If you commit to a war, if you commit to sending any American into combat, beyond the presumption, it ought to be a matter of simple of fact that we cover illnesses that that veteran has afterward.
You know in the legal world, and I’ve been in litigation as a trial lawyer for quite a while, presumption is a way of ducking a question, it is literally a way of avoiding a question. Often there’s a rebuttable presumption. What we need in healthcare for veterans is an un-rebuttable presumption. In other words, you have the illness, it’s going to be covered. And so I hope that we can change the mindset here and I really want to pay tribute to the team that you have, thousands of them, many of them in Connecticut doing a great job, dedicated, hardworking, compassionate, caring, and your leadership as well, but I think this system of presumptions is part of the problem because it locks us into a decision making mode that is costly and cumbersome. You’ve used the word cumbersome and time consuming.
And that’s the last point that I would just emphasize here. You know, a lot of these folks who are here with us today, for them, this is personal. I have two sons who have served, fortunately they’re both fine. One was in Afghanistan, the Helmed province, he was a Marine Corps infantry officer. The other was a Navy SEAL. A lot of people are going to wake up tomorrow morning and have to go through a full day wondering and worrying about their families. So time is not on our side here, nor was it on the side of the Agent Orange Vietnam veterans because they were dying and many of them are now dying.
So I want to just suggest that the PACT Act is a great start, it’s very important and will change people’s lives, but we also ought to think of the new model and I want to ask you specifically about the Palomares and the K2 veterans. K2 you have said, page 11 of your testimony, that they’re I’m quoting, “there have been concerns over several potential exposures related to exposure of K2. The VA will continue to seek information on K2 exposure opportunities.”
I would like to see that process accelerated. I’d like to see it telescoped and the same with Palomares. Folks in Palomares cleaned up after a plane crash with radioactive material without any protective gear. People at K2 were at an old Soviet base that was contaminated with oil and all kinds of other stuff, I could use other words, that the Soviets didn’t, as is illustrated by now Ukraine, they don’t give a hoot about the health of their people and they didn’t care about the health of the people they stationed there, but we should because we took it over and our people were there for about four years, 2001-2005.
So I’m out of time so I think I need the Chairman’s indulgence to ask you for a commitment but if you could commit to getting back to me with an answer…
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough: I will, I commit to that.
Blumenthal: Thank you.