(Updated April 12 to reflect House legislation.)
MOAA is standing shoulder to shoulder with the country’s most influential veterans service organizations to protect the health care and benefits of generations of servicemembers who have been exposed to toxins.
The Toxic Exposures in the American Military (TEAM) Act was introduced March 23 by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). Cory Titus, MOAA’s director of government relations for veteran benefits and Guard/Reserve affairs, was one of seven VSO leaders to pledge support for the bill during a virtual press conference. Companion legislation was introduced the same day in the House by Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.).
“Given the protracted delays in the emergence of conditions suspected to be connected to hazards like burn pits, it is clear we must adjust our actions and mindsets,” Titus said. “By changing access to health care for those who fought in the Global War on Terror, the TEAM Act creates a viable avenue for veterans to seek treatment for conditions related to their service.”
The bill would reform and improve how veterans exposed to toxic substances receive health care and benefits from the VA. Similar legislation was introduced last year, but didn’t make it onto the floor for debate before the end of the session.
Tillis, whose state is home to Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, said he believes there is enough support to push the legislation through this session.
“It’s really trying to put a framework in place that let us end mistakes that we made dating back to Agent Orange,” Tillis said. “We have to have the science so that we can fundamentally reform and improve healthcare and benefits to veterans who are exposed to toxic exposure.”
Thousands of Vietnam-era veterans have been diagnosed with serious illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and peripheral neuropathy as a result of exposure to Agent Orange, according to the VA. The herbicide was sprayed throughout Vietnam to clear the jungle and destroy crops.
Now, veteran advocates have raised concern over burn pits as a similar crisis. Although veterans who have been exposed to toxins from burn pits have noted health issues, scientific research making the link is ongoing.
The legislation is endorsed by the TEAM Coalition, a consortium of more than 30 military and veterans service organizations and experts. The coalition wrote letters of support for the bill to both Tillis and Hassan, saying that it would address significant issues faced by those who "still lack access to the lifesaving care they need."
The bill aligns with MOAA’s priorities for the upcoming legislative session. Comprehensive toxic exposure reform will be one of MOAA’s topics in Advocacy in Action, the rebranded annual event to meet with lawmakers on veteran legislation.
“The TEAM Act provides bold and necessary steps forward for how our nation treats toxic exposure for servicemembers who answered our nation’s call,” said Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, USAF (Ret), MOAA’s president and CEO. “The comprehensive approach taken by Sens. Tillis and Hassan will benefit servicemembers, veterans, families, survivors, and caregivers for years to come.”
Specifically, the TEAM Act will:
- Provide consultation and testing through the VA for eligible veterans exposed to toxic substances.
- Require the VA to respond to new scientific evidence regarding diseases associated with toxic exposure within an established timeframe.
- Establish a scientific commission to research the health effects of toxic exposure in veterans, and report the findings to the VA and Congress.
- Ensure the VA enters into agreements with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct scientific studies regarding associations between diseases and exposure to toxic substances during military service.
- Develop an online portal for veterans to access the Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record, which can track exposures throughout a veteran’s service (learn more at this link).
- Expand training on toxic exposure issues for VA health care and benefits personnel.
- Require the VA to develop a questionnaire for primary care appointments to help determine whether a veteran may have been exposed to toxic substances during service.
The bill also addresses concerns of exposure to toxins stateside.
Hassan said veterans who served at Pease Air National Guard Base in her home state of New Hampshire were exposed to contaminated drinking water. The TEAM Act would also protect their access to health care and benefits.
“Veterans answered our nation’s call to duty, and they have allowed the rest of us to be safe, secure and free,” said Hassan. “And so, one of our ongoing tasks is to make our country ever worthy of our veterans’ service and their sacrifices, and that starts with making sure that they receive the care and support that they need.”
Ask your lawmakers to support the TEAM Act and other legislation critical to comprehensive toxic exposure reform, and bookmark MOAA’s Advocacy in Action page for updates on toxic exposure legislation and more.