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Government Affairs, May/June 2023 -   -  

Getting the Ball Rolling on Legislation

Things are quiet recently with Congress on break. We are taking advantage of this lull by looking more closely at several key pieces of legislation and working on deciphering them. We need to look at issues that have been marginalized and the groups that have been overlooked and underserved.

Many veterans live in rural areas and do not have access to adequate health care or the tools to communicate with the facilities that provide telecare. One way to address this issue would be to develop a team of traveling medical mobile homes and satellite facilities.

As we deal with the issues involved in implementing the PACT Act and the CARES Act, we should let our elected officials know about our concerns—especially those with constituents in rural areas. We can also ask them to look at pay issues for VA medical personnel and the amount of time it takes to approve a prospective employee.

If we get enough legislators looking at our issues, we can get the support for proper funding to have those issues addressed. The key is to get the ball rolling. We need to contact our elected officials on a regular basis, even if it is nothing more than saying hello to a Legislative Assistant and asking how things are going.

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019

While the original law was well-intentioned and fixed a longstanding oversight regarding eligibility for claims and benefits for Blue Water Vietnam War veterans by granting presumptive benefits status to those who were exposed to Agent Orange, it only covers veterans who served on vessels within twelve nautical miles off the coasts of Vietnam and Cambodia. This excludes veterans who served beyond this arbitrary boundary yet were also potentially exposed to Agent Orange.

VVA calls on Congress in the strongest terms to amend the law to extend the nautical mile limitation sufficient to include U.S. Navy and Marine Corps veterans who were assigned to the Vietnam Theater of Combat Operations or received the Vietnam Service Medal.

Burn Pits in Southeast Asia

Burn-barrel latrines and burn pits were used in hundreds of base camps, firebases, and landing zones throughout Vietnam during the war. The open-air burning of human waste and other potentially toxic materials releases harmful chemicals into the environment. Many of the barrels that were used to burn human waste and to the latrines once contained Agent Orange. Being exposed to the fumes caused acute health effects including eye and throat irritation, breathing difficulties, and skin irritations. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from burning feces are known to cause severe chronic illness.

Title III, Section 302 of the PACT Act includes a concession of toxic exposure to burn pits for those who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations during the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War. The PACT Act does not address Vietnam veterans’ exposure to the effects of daily burning of landfill rubbish and human waste.

Burning solid waste generates many pollutants, including dioxin, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, hexachlorobenzene, and ash. Health effects from burning waste smoke depend on several factors, including the nature of the waste being burned, the duration of exposure, and proximity to the burning smoke. Vietnam War veterans who burned human waste are at greater risk for health effects.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Vietnam, veterans we talk to have shared the same stories of their exposure to open-air burning of human waste during their service in Vietnam from 1964-75. It is important for the VA to acknowledge that Vietnam veterans were exposed to these toxins, just as their fellow post-9/11 veterans were.

VVA calls on the Government Accountability Office, through an act of Congress, to study the likelihood that exposure to these airborne hazards may have caused severe clinical irregularities among Vietnam War veterans. The PACT ACT of 2022.

While passage of the PACT Act is an important victory for veterans, their families, and survivors, we now face the arduous work of making sure that the implementation of the law is accomplished with congressional oversight, verifying accountability on the regulatory and statutory sides—in particular for veterans experiencing homelessness, veterans older than 85, veterans experiencing financial hardship, and Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipients whose claims are to be fast-tracked by VA.

VVA is requesting that Congress schedule an oversight hearing on the VA’s progress and challenges in reaching out to vulnerable populations, many of whom do not use the VA healthcare system.

In addition, VVA will oppose any attempts to cut funding from the Cost of War Toxic Exposure Funds established in the PACT Act. We have an obligation to insure that Congress does not raid this program and to insure that veterans, caregivers, widows, and survivors receive the critical care and compensation they justly deserve.

Women Veterans

As the VA continues to adapt to increasing numbers of women in military service, they must continue to expand healthcare delivery to meet the needs of female service members. That includes, providing prenatal care; complete reproductive healthcare, including birth control pills without co-pay; mental and physical care for victims of military sexual trauma; and understanding the unique problems faced after facial disfigurement or loss of a limb. In addition, there must be increased research into chronic conditions that affect women.

The median age of women using VA Healthcare is forty-eight; senior veterans are facing ageism in some prophylactic testing and care for those over 75. To meet these challenges, the VA must first fund research on treatment options and seek out and hire female OB-GYN specialists, whom many women veterans prefer. Gerontology is needed at every VA hospital. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the VA must be a safe place women can enter without fear of being victimized by sexual harassment.

We thank Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) for her accomplishments on behalf women veterans as chair of the Women Veterans Task Force, leading the charge in passing laws that support the needs of women veterans. We have selected Rep. Brownley as our 2023 Legislator of the Year.

DIC Benefits

The death of a veteran is stressful for a surviving spouse. Making it even more so are the complexities of filing for VA survivor benefits. Congress should make the process easier.

More than 19,000 war veterans died during the COVID-19 pandemic. VVA has received many complaints that survivors are being denied DIC benefits because their loved one’s death certificate did not indicate that they died of a service-connected disability due to complications from COVID-19, or that the veteran’s disability was a contributing factor. We need to educate all healthcare professionals who provide care to veterans about the critical importance of registering service-connected factors in their medical records.

Our VSOs have noticed a trend in benefits for spouses and dependents being denied for DIC because the VA was attributing the veteran’s death strictly to the virus.

We need VBA to follow the law: “Contributory cause of death is inherently one not related to the principal cause. In determining whether the service-connected disability contributed to death, it must be shown that it contributed substantially or materially, it combined to cause death, or that it aided or helped the production of death.”

Many death certificates are not filled out adequately or correctly, especially if the attending physician is not a veteran’s regular doctor, but simply was present at death in an emergency room. Family members should inform doctors that a complete and accurate death certificate listing a veteran’s chronic conditions, if applicable, is necessary.

In addition, VVA supports amending Section 1102 of title 38, United States Code, by adding at a new subsection (: “In the determination of benefits under this section, notwithstanding any regulation or other provision of this chapter, a death certificate relating to a deceased veteran shall not be conclusory evidence in the determination of benefits for a surviving spouse. It shall be useful primarily in the determination that the veteran is deceased and considered for granting benefits, along with but not more relevant than other medical records and information provided by the claimant. Factors such as records from the veteran’s primary medical files, and injuries or diseases the veteran may have suffered for which benefits have been awarded, or which are the subject of a pending disability award, shall be treated as compelling in any decision for benefits under this chapter.”

We have updated our web page to include VVA’s legislative priorities for the 118th Congress. There is one page of talking points you can use support our legislative priorities. Go to Government Affairs | Vietnam Veterans of America (vva.org) and also go to Legislative Action Center | Vietnam Veterans of America (vva.org)




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