Reps. Gabbard and Mast, Senators Brown and Portman Introduce Bicameral, Bipartisan Bill to Help Veterans Exposed to Toxic Burn Pits

June 1, 2020
Press Release
(FILE PHOTO, June 2018 | Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Members of Congress, and VSOs call on Congress to pass the Burn Pits Accountability Act and other burn pits legislation. Rep. Gabbard introduced the Burn Pits Accountability Act which was passed as part of the FY 2020 NDAA. The Burn Pits Transparency Act looks to expand the effort to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.)
 
Washington, DC—Today, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) introduced H.R.7072, the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act, with Rep. Brian Mast (FL-18). Senator Sherrod Brown (OH), a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee leading on burn pits issues, is introducing the bipartisan companion bill in the Senate with Senator Rob Portman (OH). 
 
This bill would require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to notify Congress and document, track, and report all cases of burn pit exposure reported by veterans to the VA. This builds on the Burn Pits Accountability Act that was passed as part of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act in December 2019.
 
“Millions of our brothers and sisters in uniform have been exposed to the toxic chemicals released from toxic burn pits and are suffering and dying without treatment. This is an egregious failure of our nation to those who serve. It is too late for some, but more are suffering and more need help. While there has been some progress on this front in the Defense Department and VA, more must be done,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. “Our veterans deserve care, compensation, and disability benefits. Every day we lose more of our brothers and sisters, like Heath, to the toxic scars they endured as part of their service to and sacrifice for our nation. This is the Agent Orange of our post-9/11 generation and we can’t be slow to act in the same way our nation failed our Vietnam veterans. They deserve better. Their families deserve better. Congress must pass this bill today.”
 
“There’s no doubt that burn pits are the Agent Orange of our generation. Service members that were exposed in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeing horrible health effects and are dying as a result,” said Rep. Brian Mast. “We’ve made progress, but much more must be done, which is why we need this bill to track exposure to burn pits so exposed veterans can get the care they need.”
 
“This is a cost of going to war that we have to take responsibility for as a country. On the Vets committee we have a long history of putting party politics aside to work on behalf of the people who served this country, and I’m hopeful we can make progress on this bill, to take steps to help connect the dots between exposure to burn pits and the illnesses that so many of our veterans have developed,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown.
 
“We owe our servicemembers a great debt of gratitude for the safety and freedom we enjoy every day. It is our duty to stand by them and ensure transparency in the tracking of illnesses connected to their service, specifically burn pit exposure. I urge my colleagues to support this bipartisan legislation requiring VA to submit regular reports on veterans exposed to burn pits. The reports will provide valuable data on patterns of medical diagnoses and associated disability claims so we can better understand the impact of burn pits exposure and hold VA accountable for medical treatment and benefits to which veterans may be entitled,” said Sen. Rob Portman.
 
“SFC Heath Robinson was the ideal soldier who deployed to Kosovo in 2004 and in 2006 to Iraq as a combat medic. While based on Camp Liberty and working in a clinic, he volunteered when guards were needed on Camp Victory to oversee and protect Iraqi nationals who were defense contractor employees. It was on Camp Victory where Heath was in close proximity to burn pits, most days standing 10 yards from the outside perimeter of one. While he was exposed to toxic emissions on Camp Liberty and also, Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, he always believed that his most potent and concentrated exposures occurred during those 3 months of guard duty,” said Danielle Robinson, Heath’s widow. “Heath’s lung cancer diagnosis came a few months after he was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, Mucous Membrane Pemphigoid and when new symptoms weren’t related to the autoimmune disease. The first words out of his oncologist’s mouth were, ‘What the hell have you been exposed to?’ The doctor, not knowing of Heath’s time in Iraq or burn pits, went on to explain that the type of lung cancer he has is not typical, but it is an extremely rare form of lung cancer only caused by prolonged toxic exposure and there’s no statistics on what course of treatment to take.”
 
“After a decade of seeking justice our efforts to obtain compensation through the judicial system came to an end, as the courts held that the political question doctrine prevented the dispute from being heard. Our fate now lies in the hands of Congress. The Health Robinson Transparency Act is a call to action for accountability from VA and DOD. It’s time for Congress to recognize cancers and pulmonary diseases as an instrumentality of war. It’s time for toxic exposure to be recognized as an injury sustained in the line of duty, a direct result of exposure to toxins. The VA has already acknowledged these facts in binding policy instructions, VA letter 10-03. VA recently on 2/1/2019 reported its total burn pit related disability claims as approximately 10,500 since 2007,” said Rosie Torres, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Burn Pits 360.
 
“At the global level, burn pits have caused considerable health and environmental damage to our partners overseas and could further destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan which in turn affects US security and diplomacy. This may seem like a remote consequence, but the example of Agent Orange during Vietnam should serve as an important warning for Congress. There are still lingering tensions and problems between Vietnam and the USA over Agent Orange (Ha, 2016; Palmer, 2003). If Congress and the President do not act quickly to rectify the burn pits crisis, this issue could steadily harm our soldiers, veterans, and the general security of Americans,” said Dr. Thomas Woodson, a physician with Burn Pits 360.
 
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 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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