Rep. Tulsi Gabbard Gains Support For Burn Pits Legislation, Joins New Bill to Help Troops Exposed to Toxins

September 15, 2020
Press Release
Washington, DCToday, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) announced growing support for H.R.7072, the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act, a bipartisan, bicameral bill which she introduced this summer with Rep. Brian Mast (FL-18). Senator Sherrod Brown (OH), a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee leading on burn pits issues, introduced the bipartisan companion bill in the Senate with Senator Rob Portman (OH).
 
Rep. Gabbard has also requested to be an original co-sponsor of the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, which is being introduced today.
 
“The cost of war is carried by our servicemembers long after they return from the battlefield and put down the uniform. We know that millions have been exposed to these toxic substances which have ruined the lives of thousands of our servicemembers and veterans, often cutting lives short. SFC Health Robinson was one such individual. I hope his story spurs the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs to do more,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. “As a veteran of two Middle East deployments, also exposed to toxic burn pits, I will continue to push for legislation that will mandate care for those suffering due to toxic substance exposure in the line of duty.”
 
Since its introduction in June, the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act has gained over a dozen bipartisan cosponsors with more signing on this week. Burn Pits 360, an advocacy organization fighting to raise awareness about this issue and secure care for servicemembers and veterans exposed to burn pits supported the bill when it was introduced.
 
Since then, the Fleet Reserve Association, the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States (EANGUS), Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., and the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network have all provided their support for the bill.
 
“As an organization we worked for many years to pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (H.R. 299) that became a law last year. The law allows Navy Veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam during the Vietnam conflict to file disability claims for exposure to the agent orange herbicide. FRA wants to ensure that burn pits exposures are thoroughly documented and researched to prevent it from becoming this generation’s Agent Orange issue,” said John Davis, Legislative Director of the Fleet Reserve Association.
 
“America’s sons and daughters have been coming home from answering this nation’s call to arms and serving honorably in very tough places. Because of the DOD’s expedience, and VA’s avoidance, thousands of troops have been exposed to toxic waste and carcinogens resulting in rare cancers and death without recognition of service connection. The human toll has been great. It’s time for that practice to stop and for our heroes to get the recognition, treatment and care they desperately need,” said Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Frank Yoakum, Executive Director of EANGUS.
 
“This is a bill whose passage is long overdue and helps to fulfill our nation’s responsibility to care for him who shall have borne the battle,” said Harvey Weiner, National Commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A.
 
"The Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network, the only national organization dedicated to advancing bladder cancer research improving patient outcomes, applauds Rep. Gabbard for the introduction of the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act and supports all efforts to pass this important bill this year.  Burn pit exposure likely leads to increased rates of bladder cancer, putting our veterans at risk. By collecting critical information related to burn pit exposure, this bill will help ensure that our nation's veterans are able to receive the high quality medical care they earned through their service." said Andrea Maddox-Smith, CEO of the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network.
 
Background: H.R.7072, the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act 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.663, 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 Pit 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 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 in the Army Reserve. Learn more about Rep. Tulsi Gabbard…
 
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