By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed the veteran healthcare expansion bill, which would facilitate the compensation of benefits claims sought by retired service members who were exposed to Agent Orange while stationed on Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll.
Crossing party lines, House members voted 256-174 to pass H.R. 3967, also known as “The Honoring Our Pact Act,” authored by House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif).
“This legislation will finally treat toxic exposure as a cost of war by addressing the full range of issues impacting toxic-exposed veterans including access to earned benefits and healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Takano said in a statement.
H.R. 3967 incorporates Congressman Michael San Nicolas' H.R. 3368, titled the "Lonnie Kilpatrick Central Pacific Relief Act" named after the late veteran who led the fight for recognition of Agent Orange use on Guam.
The bill is now headed to the U.S. Senate.
San Nicolas said the Lonnie Kilpatrick section of the bill provides a presumption of service-connection for diseases associated with exposure to certain herbicide agents to veterans who served on Guam or American Samoa between Jan. 9, 1962 and July 31, 1980; or Johnston Atoll or a ship that went to Johnston Atoll between Jan. 1, 1972 and Sept. 30, 1977.
“Under a presumption of service-connection, specific diseases diagnosed in certain veterans are presumed to have been caused by the circumstances of their military service. Health care benefits and disability compensation may then be awarded,” San Nicolas said.
The bill also expands eligibility for hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care to veterans with a disability associated with exposure to certain herbicides during specified times of military service in the territories.
"This huge first step in the Congress acknowledging compensable Dioxin use on Guam, and in expanding Agent Orange coverage for those exposed during specific times, is a watershed moment in the history of Guam veteran advocacy," San Nicolas said.
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"So many gave their lives to this cause, so many of their families picked up and carried on after their loss, and today we can say that the U.S. House of Representatives does so acknowledge what they have been fighting for: dioxin was used on Guam, it made people sick, and it killed them, and it is only just that they be recognized and supported as all other Agent Orange exposed veterans and their families are," San Nicolas added.
The Department of Defense maintained that Agent Orange was never used on Guam, despite claims by several Guam veterans who testified that they sprayed the herbicide on different areas on Guam.
In 2018, Brian Moyer, founder of Agent Orange Survivors of Guam, came back to Guam to assist a team from the Environmental Protection Agency in identifying the areas where veterans said they sprayed herbicides.
"It's good to see this congressional report stating what we Guam veterans have been saying all along. This report calls out certain government entities for being less than honorable with the handling of the issue of Agent Orange or "commercial herbicides" on Guam," Moyer said.
He said at least five Marines with whom he worked from the USS Proteus have died from Agent Orange-related illnesses in the past 10 years.
"Plus, the late Master Sgt. Leroy Foster and, the late Lonnie Kilpatrick who HR 3368 is named after. Since Thanksgiving, there are four Guam veterans who have died from Agent Orange-related illnesses,'" Moyer said.
"One of them took his own life right at Christmas time. None of these Guam veterans with the exception of the late Leroy Foster and Lonnie Kilpatrick received any compensation for their injuries due to toxic chemical exposure," he added.
There are approximately 36 Guam veterans who have been awarded compensation for direct exposure to Agent Orange, he said.
"Hopefully. this congressional report will be of help and assistance to the people of Guam who have been left twisting in the wind with the veterans that served there during the spraying years," Moyer said.
Guam Speaker Therese Terlaje was pleased with the passage of H.R. 3967, and thanked “the many veterans across the nation and residents of Guam who have spent many years lending their voices in testimony to secure a presumption and corresponding healthcare coverage for those who suffer cancers, diabetes and other illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange.”
“I also thank my colleagues for timely and unanimous passing of Guam Legislature Resolution 199-36 (LS), in support of HR 3967, and those in Congress who championed justice for Guam and for all veterans, that address the environmental and health impacts of Agent Orange, radiation exposure and nuclear testing clean-up on veterans and the people of Guam. I hope that HR 3967 will find equal support and be passed by the U.S. Senate,” she added.
Other highlights of the bill are as follows:
Provide Priority Group 6 health care for over 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans
Provide extension of combat eligibility for health care from 5 to 10 years with a one-year open enrollment period for those veterans who missed their window.
Streamline VA’s review process for establishing toxic exposure presumptions
Concede exposure to airborne hazards/burn pits based on locations & dates of service
Require medical exams/opinions for certain veterans with toxic exposure disability claims
Add hypertension and Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance to the list of presumptions for Agent Orange exposure
Establish a presumption of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers related to burn pits/airborne hazards exposure
Create a presumption of exposure to radiation for veterans who participated in cleanup activities in Palomares, Spain, and Enewetak Atoll
Allow for a new tort claim for veterans and families exposed to toxic water at Camp Lejeune
Expand agent orange exposure to veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia
Improve data collection between VA and the Department of Defense
Commission studies related to incidents of cancer among veterans, health trends of Post 9/11 veterans and feasibility of providing healthcare to dependents of veterans
Require VA to provide standardized training to improve toxic exposure disability claims adjudications
Require VA to conduct outreach and provide resources to toxic exposed veterans