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Toxins In Burn Pit Smoke Can Have Long Term Health Effects From Cancers To Respiratory Illnesses, But Veterans Struggle To Receive Coverage & Have Claims Denied For These Conditions Linked To Burn Pit Exposure

Senator Says Honoring Our PACT Act Will Cut Red Tape So Vets Exposed To Environmental Hazards Can Get Their Health Care Benefits; Schumer Promises To Bring Bill For A Vote This Congress. Every Member Will Have to Go on the Record And Show How Much They Really Support Veterans

Schumer: Our Veterans Fought For Our Freedom, They Shouldn’t Have To Fight A Second War For The Health Care They Deserve

Standing at the Veterans Outreach Center, flanked by Rochester veterans suffering from conditions related to toxic exposure during their service and not receiving the care they deserve, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer today called for the Senate to pass the Honoring Our Promise To Address Comprehensive Toxins Act (Honoring Our PACT Act), which passed the House of Representatives last month and is supported by President Biden. The legislation would extend health care eligibilities to veterans, reform how the VA studies and adopts presumptions of service condition for toxic exposures and allow toxic-exposed veterans to address the full range of health impacts by accessing full benefits and healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). As Majority Leader, Schumer said he will bring the bill for a vote this Congress and make sure every member will go on the record to show how much they really support veterans.

“Our Rochester veterans put their lives on the line to fight for our country and our freedom, and the least we can do as a country is make sure they are taken care of when they return,” said Senator Schumer. “As Majority Leader, I am here to say that we will vote on the Honoring Our PACT Act this Congress and put everyone on the record for getting our veterans treatment for cancers, respiratory diseases, and the countless other illnesses caused by exposure to burn pits and other toxins. Every breath our veterans take is a reminder of their sacrifice. Our nation told these veterans that if they put their lives and health on the line to protect our freedoms, we would take care of them. It’s long past time to keep that promise in full and give them the full benefits they’ve earned.”

Schumer explained that the Honoring Our PACT Act would expand health care access for veterans affected by exposure to harmful substances, toxins, and other environmental hazards, including from burn pits, which put service members in Iraq and Afghanistan in proximity of airborne hazards with the open-air combustion of trash and other waste like chemicals and munitions. Schumer was joined by veterans like Kevin Kozlowski who served in Iraq and now suffers from health and breathing related issues from his exposure to burn puts during his time of service.

Post 9/11 U.S Army 82nd Airborne Veteran Kevin Kozlowski from Rochester said, “We’ve lost thousands and thousands of veterans due to combat-related incidents and now when we come home we have to fight a war with our health.  When I got back from Iraq I started noticing my breathing was getting bad and I was losing my breath easily and soon my symptoms grew worse and included migraines and gastrointestinal issues.  Finally I was diagnosed with COPD and asthma and they believe it's due to burn pit exposure and the toxins that I was exposed to in Iraq.  They need to do the right thing to address the harmful effects of these toxins and eradicate the burn pits to protect and care for veterans like us.”

Veterans Outreach Center Executive Director and U.S. Army Veteran Laura Stradley said, “Our service members willingly sacrificed their health and well-being when their nation asked them to stand in harm’s way in hot spots around the world. Many of them are now suffering from the harmful effects of toxin and chemical exposures from their time in service.  As such, it is vital that we enable them to get the care and support they now need.   Veterans Outreach Center stands with our veterans, and we support the laws that allow our brothers and sisters to access much-needed healthcare, services, and support.”

Toxins in burn pit smoke have been shown to potentially have long-term effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract, and internal organs, but veterans often face a complicated disability benefit claims process at the VA to get access to the health care they need. Schumer said this legislation would open up VA health care to the tens of thousands of toxic-exposed veterans in New York, and 3.5 million veterans nationally exposed to toxic substances during their service even if they do not have a service-connected disability.

“As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I know when we send our servicemembers into harm’s way, we make a promise that we will take care of them when they come home,” said Congressman Joe Morelle. “I was proud to keep that promise by voting to ensure all veterans exposed to toxic substances during their service can access the essential care and benefits they’ve earned, and I’m grateful to Senator Schumer for making the Honoring Our PACT Act a priority.”

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said, “No veteran should go without medical coverage for illnesses they contracted while serving in the military. I strongly support Senator Schumer’s effort to get Senate passage of the Honoring Our PACT Act to cover medical issues for our veterans due to harmful exposures during their military service. In Monroe County, we don’t just say we support our veterans, we act on their behalf to ensure they get the help they need and deserve. This bill would allow us to do more for those who defended our freedom. Thank you to Sen. Schumer for his advocacy for our veterans.”

Valentino Gatto, President of Chapter 20 Vietnam Veterans of America said, “We deeply appreciate the efforts by Senator Schumer to resolve the latest stonewalling to ensure that veterans who are sickened while serving their nation by exposure to toxins  like Agent Orange, and more recently from burn pits, receive the care they deserve for their sacrifice.  Why are so many veterans who honorably served this great nation still waiting for services, treatment and a decision that defies any reasonable justification.  We were glad to join Senator Schumer two years ago to push for Vietnam Veterans suffering from bladder cancer, hyperthyroidism, and Parkinson-like symptoms to be automatically approved for service-connected benefits.  We succeeded but the job is far from over which is why we are once again glad to join with Senator Schumer today.”

“For too many years, we sent our brave servicemembers to live and work on bases where they were forced to breathe in poisonous fumes for months on end,” said Senator Gillibrand. “They stepped up to serve their country. Now it’s time for us to step up to take care of them. We must pass the Honoring Our PACT Act and eliminate needless bureaucracy to ensure that every veteran can access the lifesaving care they deserve.”

Schumer has a long history of fighting to expand healthcare coverage for veterans and fighting to deliver the treatment they deserve. In January 2020, Schumer stood with Rochester Vietnam War veterans to demand the inclusion of additional diseases to the Agent Orange presumptive conditions list. After a full court press that he launched in Upstate New York, Schumer was successfully able to secure the expansion of the list to include bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism for diseases associated with ‘Agent Orange’ exposure in the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

This bill would also expand on Schumer’s previous advocacy for Agent Orange exposure by further adding additional conditions like hypertension to the list of presumptive conditions. In addition, the bill also provides new or increased disability benefits to thousands of veterans by designating 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers as likely linked to toxic exposures related to military burn pits.

Details of the Honoring Our PACT Act can be found below:

  • Provide Priority Group 6 health care for over 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans
  • Provide extension of combat eligibility for health care from 5 to 10 years with a one-year open enrollment period for those veterans who missed their window.
  • Streamline VA’s review process for establishing toxic exposure presumptions 
  • Concede exposure to airborne hazards/burn pits based on locations & dates of service
  • Require medical exams/opinions for certain veterans with toxic exposure disability claims
  • Add hypertension and Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance to the list of presumptions for Agent Orange exposure
  • Establish a presumption of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers related to burn pits/airborne hazards exposure
  • Create a presumption of exposure to radiation for veterans who participated in cleanup activities in Palomares, Spain, and Enewetak Atoll
  • Expand Agent Orange exposure to veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia
  • Improve data collection between VA and the Department of Defense
  • Commission studies related to incidents of cancer among veterans, health trends of Post 9/11 veterans and feasibility of providing healthcare to dependents of veterans 
  • Require VA to provide standardized training to improve toxic exposure disability claims adjudications
  • Require VA to conduct outreach and provide resources to toxic exposed veterans

Schumer was joined by Representative Joe Morelle, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello, Veterans Outreach Center Executive Director Laura Stradley, Post 9/11 U.S Army Veteran Kevin Kozlowski from

Rochester who suffers from respiratory illnesses following his exposure to burn pits, Melissa Hemmerick wife of Army Veteran Michael Hemmerick who passed away suffering from respiratory issues following two deployments to Afghanistan, Rochester’s Vietnam Veterans of American (VVA) Chapter 20 President Valentino Gatto and local Rochester area veterans.