Rep. Tulsi Gabbard Demands Answers from DOD and VA Leaders on Burn Pits and COVID-19

June 12, 2020
Press Release
Washington, DC—Today, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Secretary Mark T. Esper requesting information about servicemembers and veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and who have been infected or are being tested for COVID-19 infection.
 
“Over a million of my brothers and sisters in uniform and veterans were exposed to toxic burn pits and are now experiencing respiratory health problems. Their service-related exposure must be recognized and documented and they must be able to get the care they need,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. “The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic only increases the urgency of doing this because those exposed to burn pits face greater risks of health complications due to COVID-19 infection. Our troops and veterans must be able to trust that the DOD and VA acknowledge their service-connected toxic exposure, the health consequences they suffer as a result, and that they are collecting this data to ensure they have access to testing, are getting informed care, and comprehensive treatment.”
 
The full text of the letter is available on the Congresswoman's website.
 
Earlier this month, she introduced H.R.7072, the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act, with Rep. Brian Mast (FL-18). The bipartisan, bicameral bill was also introduced in the Senate by Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman of Ohio. The bill is named after Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, a member of the Ohio Army National Guard who died in May of cancer and who had been exposed to toxic burn pits during his deployment.
 
Background: On June 1, 2020, Reps. Gabbard and Mast introduced the bipartisan, bicameral bill, H.R.7072, the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act. Senators Brown and Portman, of Ohio, introduced its companion bill in the Senate. H.R.7072 would:
 
  • Require the Secretary of Veteran Affairs (VA) to document a veteran who may have been exposed to burn pits and quarterly notify Congress of these cases, including several data points related to the veterans’ cases and exposure, including the medical facility at which it was reported; enrollment status; demographics; identification of any non-VA benefits received; branch of service and rank; period of service; location of burn pits the veteran may have been exposed to;  medical diagnosis of the vet and the treatment provided, and whether the vet was registered in the Burn Pit Registry.
  • Require the VA to submit a biannual report to Congress identifying how many veterans complain of burn pit exposure, how many make disability claims and what the outcome of those claims are, a comprehensive list of conditions burn pit exposed veterans have, and the location of burn pits; and
  • Require healthcare providers to inform a veteran who mentions “burn pits” about the existing Burn Pit Registry so they have knowledge of the Registry and can register themselves.
 
SFC Heath Robinson, died Wednesday, May 8, 2020, at age 39. He suffered from a rare form of cancer caused by his exposure to burn pits during a 13 month stint in Iraq serving as a medic with the Ohio Army National Guard. Doctors diagnosed him with a rare autoimmune disorder called mucous membrane pemphigoid. It is believed his exposure to toxic smoke from burn pits, which included chemical weapons, computer hardware, human remains, medical waste, asbestos, pesticides, paint cans, fuels, and other items resulted in his chronic condition. Upon retirement, he was denied family caregiver benefits.
 
Based on deployment numbers since 1990, it is likely that over a million servicemembers and veterans should be included in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. Between April 25, 2014 and April 28, 2020, 203,525 veterans and service members completed and submitted the registry questionnaire. Exposure can produce serious and potentially life-threatening health effects, including neurological disorders, rare forms of cancer, lung diseases, and more — triggering some to call the crisis the ‘Agent Orange’ of the post-9/11 generation. 
 
The SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act builds on previous legislation, H.R.633, the Burn Pits Accountability Act, which requires that all DoD members are accounted for in the burn pits registry. The Burn Pits Accountability Act — a bipartisan, bicameral bill introduced in the House by Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) and Brian Mast (FL-18) that has over 205 cosponsors and the support of more than two dozen servicemember organizations — was incorporated into the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020. Senator Sherrod Brown helped lead the effort to advance the Burn Pits Accountability Act in the Senate and helped ensure its inclusion in the House-Senate conference report. The final version of the 2020 NDAA included the Burn Pits Accountability Act and was passed in December 2019 and subsequently signed into law by the President.
 
However, currently the registry is voluntary for veterans and many are unaware of it and the important role it plays. The Burn Pits Transparency Act will close that gap by ensuring all veterans that discuss burn pit exposure with their VA healthcare provider are aware of the registry and their opportunity to be included.
 
If passed, the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pits Transparency Act will improve data tracking and accountability as well as provide additional information necessary to logically identify and determine causation between burn pit exposure and reported chronic diseases. In doing so, Congress will be able provide the needed resources to care for our servicemembers and veterans exposed to burn pits and oversee the departments and agencies responsible for delivering that support and care. The bill is another step forward in an effort to prevent a situation akin to Agent Orange, where veterans complained of exposure as the cause of their medical problems, but the correlation was not acknowledged until years later.
 
The Burn Pits Accountability Act (passed as part of the 2020 NDAA) requires the Secretary of Defense to record whether servicemembers have been based or stationed at a location where an open burn pit was used or exposed to toxic airborne chemicals, including any information recorded as part of the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, in the Periodic Health Assessment (PHAs), Separation History and Physical Examination (SHPEs), and Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHAs). It enrolls any servicemember who meets these criteria in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, unless he or she opts-out. And, it would require the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to share information relating to exposure of burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals recorded in PHAs, SHPEs, and PDHAs.
 
About Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is serving her fourth term in the United States House representing Hawai‘i’s Second District, and serves on the House Armed Services and Financial Services Committees. She previously served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Homeland Security Committee. She was elected to the Honolulu City Council in 2010, and prior to that at age 21, was elected to the Hawaiʻi State Legislature in 2002, becoming the youngest person ever elected in the state. Tulsi Gabbard has served in the Hawaiʻi Army National Guard for over 17 years, is a veteran of two Middle East deployments, and continues to serve as a Major. Learn more about Rep. Tulsi Gabbard...
 
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