It’s One of the VA’s Biggest Expansions of Benefits in History. Some Veterans Missed Out.

The PACT Act, which was meant to help veterans receive care and benefits after being exposed to toxins and burn pits while serving their country, was billed as the most sweeping piece of veterans health care legislation ever passed.

But for some veterans, like those exposed to things like the “black goo” and even cyanide at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, also known as K2, in Uzbekistan, it was not sweeping enough.

Military.com’s veterans and health reporter Patricia Kime spoke to several veterans about being left out of this law after years of advocacy and months of political turmoil. What does being left out mean for their futures? How are they grappling with illnesses that advocates say should be covered by the VA’s biggest health care law?

Main Topics

  • Host Drew F. Lawrence speaks with Military.com’s veterans health care reporter, Patricia Kime
  • Interviews Disabled American Veterans Deputy National Legislative Director and Marine Corps veteran Shane Liermann

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Transcript:

SPEAKERS

​​​​Jon Stewart, John Feal, Patricia Kime, Drew F. Lawrence, Shane Liermann, Rosie Torres

Drew F. Lawrence 

The PACT Act, which was meant to help veterans receive care and benefits after being exposed to toxins and burn pits while serving their country, was billed as the most sweeping piece of veteran healthcare legislation ever passed. But for some veterans, like those exposed to things like the “black goo” and even cyanide at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, also known as K2 – it was not sweeping enough.

Jon Stewart 

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little. I hope we learned a lesson.

Drew F. Lawrence 

That was Jon Stewart, comedian and toxic exposure advocate who was at the Capitol about a year and a half ago after the PACT Act was finally passed after three tries in Congress and round-the-clock protests by veterans looking to get care. But according to advocates and veterans who have been left out of the PACT Act’s benefits, a lesson hasn’t been learned, and more needs to be done for those not supported by the narrowly written law.

Shane Liermann 

I get very, I don’t want to say upset, but it just makes me feel very disconcerted when there are attempts to remove things or change things solely based on costs. Whereas for the PACT Act, a lot of these go back to the first Persian Gulf. So we waited 30 years to grant some of these benefits. Maybe if we didn’t wait 30 years, it wouldn’t be so expensive, and then cost wouldn’t become this main argument against doing it.

Drew F. Lawrence 

Military.com’s veterans and health reporter Patricia Kime spoke to several veterans about being left out of this law after years of advocacy and months of political turmoil. What does being left out mean for their futures? How are they grappling with illnesses that advocates say should be covered by the VA’s biggest healthcare law? For Military.com, my name is Drew Lawrence – it is Friday January 26th, and this is Fire Watch. Hi Patricia, thanks for joining us on Fire Watch today. So tell us, what are veterans telling you about some of these gaps in the PACT Act?

Patricia Kime 

The PACT Act broadened benefits for many service members of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf War as well as the Vietnam War and pockets of veterans exposed to toxic substances overseas. But there are vets who have pressed for years for investigations into illnesses they think are related to serving on U.S. bases that have been listed as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency. I spoke with Julie Akey, a former soldier who lived at Fort Ord, California, which has been declared a hazardous site for the level of lead in its soil and chemicals in its water. Years later, she developed cancer, and after reaching out to other veterans once stationed at Fort Ord, found that this was not that unusual. She now has a spreadsheet of more than 1,300 veterans who served there and have various types of cancer. You know, she fought for years to get benefits from the VA and told me that, you know, she was exhausted but she was keeping up the fight for these other veterans. The day that our story came out, she went to the mailbox and found out the VA had finally approved her disability claim.

Drew F. Lawrence 

And as a reminder, the VA billed this PACT Act as the largest toxic exposure legislation that has ever been passed. So I guess I’m wondering why does it seem to be lacking for those other veterans if it was so big?

Patricia Kime 

Well, Drew. The PACT Act was primarily intended to provide health care and benefits mainly to post 9/11 veterans exposed to burn pits used to dispose of waste in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom to dispose of waste– those pits, sometimes acres wide, belched black smoke over work spaces and bases and have been blamed for causing a number of severe diseases in what was a relatively young population. As a result of congressional negotiations, it also included pockets of veterans exposed to radiation at several nuclear cleanup sites, new illnesses linked to Agent Orange included. It was never intended to be all-inclusive, and there are many locations that could be considered hazardous to ones’ health – At Naval Air Station Atsugi, Japan, a commercial incinerator located just off base, belched potentially cancer-causing smoke over the installation for several years. The Navy has said that the emissions may have contained contaminants that put service members and their families at increased risk for cancer and other health effects. There’s K2, a former Soviet air base in southeastern Uzbekistan, which was included in the Act but only for burn pit exposures. Veterans say the environment – the ground and water – was a toxic cesspool of contaminants. And there are many more. These veterans, who believe they are sick from other exposures – industrial chemicals and solvents, hazardous materials used in weapons manufacturing and maintenance, possible exposure to chemical weapons and radiation, unsuprisingly feel left out.

Drew F. Lawrence 

I talked to Shane Liermann, who our listeners heard at the top of the show. He is the Deputy National Legislative Director for Disabled American Veterans. Here’s what he said.

By including them under burn pits as part of the pact act. A lot of people think they fix the issue…when we bring it up to members of Congress, they’re like, Oh, no. K two was added in the pact act. And we’re, I know, just exposure to burn pits, not the specific toxic exposures, they’re in any diseases related.

Patricia Kime 

It’s definitely no small feat that it was passed. A decade ago, there were a handful of veterans and their spouses knocking on doors on the Hill trying to get anyone to pay attention – I sat in Defense Department meetings where top-level installation chiefs flatly denied that burn pits were toxic. Given the scope of the bill and the potential cost, it wasn’t surprising that it required intense scrutiny and negotiations.

Drew F. Lawrence 

What is the VA saying about the veterans who say they’ve missed out on these benefits?

Patricia Kime 

VA Secretary Denis McDonough points out that just because a veteran is not covered by the pack, that doesn’t mean they can’t file disability claim. If they have an illness or injury they believe is connected to their service, they may file a claim, but because they are not considered under what the department calls a presumptive illness, it makes it much harder.

Shane Liermann 

There’s three things to service connection, the diagnosis, the in-service event or the exposure, and the third thing is the medical link, when they do a presumptive, they’re conceding you are exposed to that chemical or that toxin. And then they’re presuming a disease is related to that conceded exposure. So they haven’t even conceded the exposure to those yet, VA hasn’t. And so we need one them to concede that exposure. And then two, we need a list of diseases related to it.

Drew F. Lawrence 

That was Shane Liermann again. Now, it seems like Congress is always fighting about legislation, so it’s relevant that chaos likely contributed to some of those groups you mentioned being left out.

Patricia Kime 

That’s right. The PACT Act was on the table three times, with lawmakers concerned largely about the cost of the bill, which advocates said shouldn’t matter – that the government should pay benefits to those sickened by their military service – and fiscal conservatives raising issue with its broad language and potential to contribute significantly to the federal deficit. In the end, 11 Republicans still voted against it, all for various reasons – but mostly because of cost and how it would be paid for.

Drew F. Lawrence 

Right, I think Rosie Torres, co-founder of BurnPit 360 – an advocacy group for these issues – put it best at the time regarding the struggle in Congress.

Rosie Torres 

I mean, we walked the halls for years, 13 years, year after year after year of dealing with gatekeepers, and political bureaucratics, just bullshit excuses about why they wouldn’t, why they couldn’t and why they shouldn’t. And in the end, it was very clear that they were playing partisan politics on the backs of sick and dying veterans.

Drew F. Lawrence 

Shane told me that when it was passed there was almost this, wary elation. Veterans were happy for the win, but it had come after so much struggle that there was almost, we got what we could get type of outlook.

Shane Liermann 

But when they started stripping away some of these things like the retro application, and then they’re going to take away hypertension. I know, our organization was getting very concerned, we were very leery of what was going to happen next, because it started feeling like they’re just starting to strip things out to make it more palpable, to make it easier to pass so people don’t worry about the cost.

Drew F. Lawrence 

And I should say that hypertension was eventually included after what Shane described as a hard fight, but it added to that sense of incompleteness to such a large bill.

Patricia Kime 

Right, and Drew, you were there when it was passed, tell us what it was like.

Drew F. Lawrence 

Right, yeah, I was there. I was outside of the Capitol. What I can tell you is that there was a lot of elation. Veterans had spent nights and days camped outside of the Capitol in protest. Frequently, lawmakers would come out with updates. But, as the sun set after the act was passed, there was also a sense that the fight was not over. Here’s John Feal, an advocate and veteran.

John Feal 

Where’s, where’s the celebration that we’re gonna have? The hard part hasn’t begun. Getting a bill passed is easy. You just got to beat up the Senate and the House. But these people behind me now, they actually have to advocate. They got to take that bill from it’s infant stage, and make sure that Congress and the VA and the Senate do the right thing. They got to do that for the rest of their fucking lives.

Drew F. Lawrence 

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Fire Watch. Thank you to our guests, Patricia Kime and Shane Lierman. Thanks also to executive producer Zachary Fryer-Biggs. If you liked this episode and want to let us know, give us a rating – wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.

Story Continues

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