WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jerry Moran (Kan.) – ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee (SVAC) – today gave opening remarks before the committee during a hearing on the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021.
“Sen. Tester and I are working together to create a fair, transparent and responsive process for toxic-exposed veterans beginning with the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act which unanimously passed out of the Senate,” said Sen. Moran. “When the President signs this bill into law, sick veterans who are suffering from the effects of toxic substances will be immediately eligible for life-saving health care without further delay.”
“However, the House has chosen thus far to not to take up that important legislation and instead decided to send us the bill we will be reviewing today, the PACT Act,” continued Sen. Moran. “While the PACT Act includes the critical Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act, signaling broad support for the legislation, it also includes provisions that will stretch the VA beyond its operational capacity, effectively providing no guarantee that toxic-exposed veterans will be able to access benefits.”
Witnesses who testified before the committee included Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough, Associate Director of National Legislative Service for Veterans of Foreign Wars Kristina Keenan, Deputy National Legislative Director for Disabled American Veterans Shane Liermann, and National Executive Director of Fleet Reserve Association Christopher Slawinski.
Click HERE to Watch Sen. Moran’s Full Remarks
Remarks as prepared:
First of all, I’d like to recognize that today is National Vietnam War Veterans Day. To all our Vietnam veterans -- welcome home! No generation understands the challenges and hardships of toxic exposure better than our Vietnam veterans, and we greatly value your continued service in this area, particularly as Congress continues to respond to this challenge to fix the system our veterans depend on.
Over the past 30 years, Congress and VA have relied on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to review literature associated with toxic exposures.
Within 29 scientific reports, that I have with me here today, more than 473 conditions have been reviewed and 35 conditions have been added to a list of presumed service-connected diseases by VA through the recommendation of the academies.
In the 20 years since 9/11, 3.5 million veterans have been potentially exposed to burn pits, but approximately 70% of burn pit claims have been denied by VA.
In the past two years, nearly every Veterans Service Organization has testified before this committee and emphasized the importance of fixing the process VA uses to provide health care and benefits to toxic-exposed veterans. In response, I have been working with Senator Tester, my colleagues, stakeholders, and veterans across the country to build a transparent, comprehensive, and enduring solution.
Sen. Tester and I worked together to create a fair, transparent, and responsive process for toxic-exposed veterans beginning with the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act which unanimously passed out of the Senate. This was also cosponsored by every member of this committee. When the President signs this bill into law, sick veterans who are suffering from the effects of toxic substances will be immediately eligible for life-saving health care without further delay.
However, the House chose not to take up that important legislation and decided to send us the bill we will be reviewing today, the PACT Act. While the PACT Act includes the critical Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act, signaling broad support for the legislation – it also includes provisions that will stretch the VA beyond its operational capacity, effectively providing no guarantee that veterans will be able to access benefits.
This bill needs to be amended. Sen. Tester and I know that. Stakeholders know that. Secretary McDonough, you’ve even said as much in your testimony.
As we work to improve this legislation to make certain that VA can continue to meet the needs of veterans, I again call on the House to pass the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act so the VA can immediately provide more toxic-exposed veterans with care.
Last Congress, this committee approved the TEAM Act, that I cosponsored, to provide a lasting presumptive framework. That bill was developed with more than 30 VSOs as a veteran-centric solution. We must draw on that framework, and the VSOs’ collaborative commitment to get the policy right, to improve on the bill before us today.
VA developed a pilot program last year to evaluate and implement presumptions for service-connection resulting in the establishment of several presumptions for respiratory ailments.
However, VA has yet to provide this committee with its methodology from this pilot that has led to 12 new presumptions. I look forward to examining in depth this program today to help inform this committee on how to create a law that will withstand the test of time while mitigating disruptions in the VA’s work caring for our veterans.
Whether statutory or regulatory, reform must establish a threshold for scientific evidence, and the decision-making process must be transparent to all who are involved in the care of veterans.
For decades, VA has relied upon a partnership with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to help make determinations within the presumptive decision-making process.
As a trusted source of scientific evidence, the academies were charged with reviewing and describing how presumptions have been made in the past and making recommendations for an improved scientific framework that could be used in the future for determining if a presumption should be made. I requested that the academies submit for the record their 2008 report entitled: Improving the Presumptive Decision-Making Process for Veterans, so this committee can utilize those recommendations while crafting legislation.
As part of our discussion, Secretary McDonough, I look forward to hearing how VA has utilized and built on the NASEM recommendations.
I look forward to today’s testimony and exchange, as well as continued partnership with Sen. Tester and each stakeholder present today, to craft a responsive and enduring system that works for veterans- both today’s and tomorrow’s.
# # #