RELEASE: Gottheimer Announces Bipartisan $15 Billion Boost to Expand Healthcare for NJ Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits & Toxic Substances

Key Part of Bipartisan Debt Ceiling Package. Expanding Care for Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan-Era Veterans. Gottheimer Helped Pass the PACT Act and Secure Additional Investment for its Toxic Exposure Fund.

Jun 05, 2023
Press

Above: Gottheimer in Bergenfield announcing a new investment to expand veteran healthcare.

BERGENFIELD, NJ — Today, June 5, 2023, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) announced that after months of debt ceiling negotiations, he helped successfully secure a $20 billion dollar investment for the PACT Act Toxic Exposure Fund — a $15 billion dollar increase to get much needed healthcare to veterans who were exposed to burn pits and toxic substances during their service.

Gottheimer helped stop far-right extremists from gutting healthcare and benefits for veterans, slashing investments for our military and law enforcement, crashing our economy, and putting America’s leadership in the world at risk. 

Last year, working with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which he Co-Chairs, Gottheimer helped pass the bipartisan PACT Act to expand VA-provided healthcare and services to nearly 3.5 million Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan-era veterans — including thousands across New Jersey — who were exposed to burn pits and toxic substances. Included in the PACT Act is a key bipartisan provision authored by Gottheimer to address the mental health impacts of toxic exposure for veterans.

Some of the U.S. military open-air burn pits that exposed our service members to toxic chemicals during deployments were the size of football fields and were used to incinerate everything from used medical supplies and electronics to garbage and human waste. 

The VA estimates that 2.6 million veterans were exposed to Agent Orange alone, and over 300,000 veterans died after being exposed to this dangerous toxic chemical.

As of March 2021, of the more than 200,000 veterans who were signed up for the VA’s burn pit registry — 70 percent of claims had been denied. Of the more than 15,000 with disability compensation claims related to burn pit exposure, only 3,500 veterans had at least one claim granted.

This new investment will help improve research, staff education, and treatment related to toxic exposures, and it will get the VA the resources it needs to more efficiently process claims. 

The PACT Act:

  • Expands and extends eligibility for VA health care for veterans with toxic exposures and veterans of the Vietnam, Gulf War, and post-9/11 eras. It will expand benefits and services to roughly 3.5 million veterans.
  • Creates a framework for the establishment of future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure.
  • Expands the VA’s list of service presumptive conditions for burn pits and other toxic exposures.
  • Requires the VA to provide a toxic exposure screening to every veteran enrolled in VA health care.
  • Helps improve research, staff education, and treatment related to toxic exposures, and improves resources to support VA’s claims processing.

Gottheimer’s provision signed into law within the bipartisan PACT Act will:

  • Examine and address veteran mental health impacts of toxic exposure: Gottheimer’s provision directs the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to examine the possible relationship between toxic exposures experienced during service in the Armed Forces and mental health outcomes.

“We know, unfortunately and tragically — because of the harms of toxic exposure — our veterans are sick and dying. This new investment is a huge, historic win for veterans in New Jersey and across the country. They will finally receive the VA-provided care and benefits they deserve, and, with my provision, we’ll be able to examine the impacts toxic exposure has on our veterans’ mental health. These are federal dollars being clawed back to help our veterans right here in Jersey,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5). “I can’t think of anything more un-American than putting party before the health and care of our nation’s veterans — the very people who risked their lives, left their families behind while they went to fight, and made unimaginable sacrifices so that all of us can be safe and free here at home. The bipartisan debt ceiling legislation wasn’t perfect, but we stopped extremists from gutting healthcare and benefits for veterans, crashing our economy, and putting our leadership in the world at risk.”

“Some of my deployments during my time included Saudi Arabia, Operation Desert Strike and Operation Southern Watch at Prince Sultan Air Base and other parts of the region including Bahrain where I was directly exposed to burn pits and toxic chemicals,” said Paramus, New Jersey resident and former U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Arnie O’Callaghan, who was exposed to toxic chemicals during deployment to the Middle East. “Recently, President Biden and Speaker McCarthy negotiated the debt ceiling and spending bill which I was following, because the outcome could have been detrimental to our veterans’ healthcare and benefits. I was concerned and it caused me a lot of stress having filed a claim under the PACT ACT which is still pending. With the tireless work and effort put in by Josh Gottheimer on behalf of our veterans for the state of New Jersey and the rest of the country he and other members fought to protect our veterans. And thanks to Josh Gottheimer, veterans’ benefits were protected and an increase in funding for the PACT Act was secured.” 

More than 300,000 veterans live in New Jersey, including more than 25,000 in Bergen County alone.

Gottheimer was joined today at Bergenfield’s Veterans Memorial Park by Paramus resident and former U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Arnie O’Callaghan, former Army Specialist 4 and three-time Purple Heart Vietnam War veteran Arnold O’Callaghan, Bergenfield Mayor Arvin Amatorio, Council President Marc Pascual, Councilman Buddy Deauna, Councilman Domingo Almonte, Director of Bergen County Veterans Services Shaun Hutchinson, David Pearson, SOS Vets and Catholic Charities, Commander of Bergenfield VFW Post #6467 Warren Williams, and local North Jersey veterans.

Video of the announcement can be found here. 

Below: Gottheimer in Bergenfield announcing a new investment to expand veteran healthcare.

Gottheimer’s remarks as prepared for delivery: 

Good morning. We’re here today in Bergenfield, at the borough’s veteran’s memorial, to announce a major win that will expand care and support for our nation’s veterans — for those directly in harm’s way. 

We’re exactly one week removed from Memorial Day — a day we formally remember and honor the service members who made the ultimate sacrifice. Those who defended our freedom, our families, and the greatest democracy the world has ever known.

To all those actively serving and the veterans here, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your service, for putting your lives on the line to protect us. We must always get your backs.

Arnie, thank you for your powerful words and for your service — both in the Air Force and as a police officer in Dumont. It’s so important that we spread awareness about the care and support available to our veterans.

And we’re honored to be joined by Arnie’s father, former Specialist 4 Arnold O’Callaghan, who was part of the Army’s 101st Airborne and a three-time Purple Heart Vietnam veteran.

Please know this: after sacrificing so much, no veteran should ever struggle to get the care or recognition they have earned. 

These are principles of the country we live in, the one all of you protected, under the flag we all salute. 

Like you, I never swore an oath to a political party – I swore an oath to defend our country, and to our constitution.

But, as President John F. Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” 

That’s why last year, working with members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which I Co-Chair, we confronted an inequity plaguing so many of our veterans — veterans who were exposed to burn pits and toxic substances during their service. Outrageously, many of them weren’t receiving the health care and support they and their families deserved. We went into action, and helped pass the bipartisan PACT Act, which is now the law of the land. 

The PACT Act will secure benefits and care for Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan-era veterans exposed to toxic substances like Agent Orange while serving overseas.

This legislation also covers veterans dating back to Vietnam to Operation Desert Storm, and through our more recent post-9/11 conflicts, who were exposed to burn pits and toxic chemicals. 

And, just last week, after months of debt ceiling negotiations, I’m proud to announce that as part of that bipartisan agreement and legislation that’s now law, we successfully secured a $20 billion dollar investment for the PACT Act Toxic Exposure Fund — a $15 billion dollar increase. 

Why is that important? Because this problem is so great, that the initial investment we made to support our sick and dying veterans just wasn’t enough. We were leaving some behind, and that is unacceptable. As Kennedy said, we need to live by words — not just utter them. 

Also, June is PTSD Awareness Month, and I’m proud to highlight that, included in the PACT Act, are bipartisan provisions I drafted to examine and address the mental health impacts of burn pits for veterans. 

The PACT Act is the most significant expansion of VA health care and disability compensation benefits for veterans in 30 years. 

Because of the PACT Act, the VA will be required to provide a toxic exposure screening to every veteran enrolled in VA health care. And this new investment will help improve research, staff education, and treatment related to toxic exposures, and will get the VA the resources it needs to more efficiently process claims. 

This is a huge, historic win for veterans in New Jersey and across the country. This new investment will expand benefits and services to roughly 3.5 million veterans, including thousands across New Jersey. They will finally receive the VA-provided care and benefits they deserve, and, with my provision, we’ll be able to examine the impacts toxic exposure has on our veterans’ mental health. 

And, again, these are federal dollars being clawed back to help our veterans right here in Jersey, where more than 300,000 veterans live — more than 25,000 in Bergen County alone.

Let’s just talk for a minute about the healthcare crisis the PACT Act addresses — the depths of the problem so deep that Jon Stewart compared toxic exposure wounds to an IED bomb that goes off in your body six to nine to 10 years later.

We literally have veterans who came home with lungs that looked like that of an 80-year-old coal miner.

As of March 2021, of the more than 200,000 veterans who were signed up for the VA’s burn pit registry — 70 percent of claims had been denied. Of the more than 15,000 with disability compensation claims related to burn pit exposure, only 3,500 veterans had at least one claim granted. Insane. Talk about leaving a soldier on the battlefield.

The VA denied 40 percent of coverage requests, because veterans could not report a diagnosed, covered medical condition. Many are still sick — and too many have already died.

It was inexcusable. They deserve help and support.

Some of the open-air burn pits that exposed our service members to toxic chemicals during deployments were the size of football fields and were used to incinerate everything from used medical supplies and electronics to garbage and human waste.

Dan Brewer, a retired Army officer and former burn pit inspector, called it a silent killer — saying that it may not kill you on the battlefield. But down the road, it’s going to cause some long-term health effects.

Chris Tessein is a North Jersey veteran and someone I consider a friend. He couldn’t make it here today, but he was exposed to burn pits during his military service. He served from 1987 to 1992 during the Gulf War as a U.S. Army Paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.

He has told me that he didn’t know what he was ingesting and breathing in on a daily basis. He said that chemical imbalance throws off the brain very easily. It’s like taking a medication that can throw off your chemical imbalance. It’s the same thing with inhaling and ingesting toxic chemicals.

We know, unfortunately and tragically — due to the harms of toxic exposure — our veterans are sick and dying. 

The U.S. military used burn pits for years, at many bases abroad, but especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clouds of black smoke from the pits would billow for miles, and pilots sometimes reported using the smoke as visual confirmation of a base’s location. 

A survey from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America finds that nearly 90 percent of post-9/11 veterans were exposed to the smoke from the burn pits. And that smoke was toxic.

Unfortunately, getting this support for our veterans wasn’t easy as it should have been. We faced serious pushback from some extremists in Congress — when the PACT Act was first before the House, and just last week when we voted to expand care to our veterans. 

It was part of a larger package that included raising our nation’s debt ceiling, so we could pay our bills and avoid default.  

As many of you know, for months, many on the far-right were prepared to tank our economy, and American’s 401Ks, pensions, and savings — and put our nation’s reputation in the world at risk. The government of China was salivating at the opportunity to surge ahead as the trusted and pegged currency of the world. 

Before we finally overcame their extremism, and attempts to upend our economy, the far-right passed partisan, extreme legislation that would cut hard-earned benefits for veterans, slash investments for our military and law enforcement, raise taxes, kill jobs, and defund critical support for our families, children, seniors, and public safety.

I can’t think of anything more un-American than putting party before the health and care of our nation’s veterans — the very people who risked their lives, left their families behind while they went to fight, and made unimaginable sacrifices so that all of us can be safe and free here at home.

We knew that we had to sit down at the table to get a deal done to raise the debt ceiling and protect our veterans. 

With the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, we had discussions with the White House, negotiators, and congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle. And, after many weeks and months, a deal was made, with Democrats and Republicans coming to the table and helping to pass the Debt Ceiling Agreement. I’m particularly proud that the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus played a key role in getting the bipartisan agreement across the finish line. The vote passed because of those in the commonsense middle and the President has now signed the bill into law.

The legislation wasn’t perfect, but we stopped extremists from gutting healthcare and benefits for veterans, crashing our economy, and putting our leadership in the world at risk. 

We were able to both raise the debt ceiling to prevent an economic collapse and address our nation’s longer-term fiscal health — to help pay down the debt. It was a false choice to say we couldn’t do both.

We also streamlined permitting for clean energy, traditional energy, and infrastructure projects — so we can get our roads, bridges, the Gateway Train Tunnel, and other key water, transit, and broadband projects moving faster here in Jersey.

Our veterans represent the best our nation has to offer — the ones who have sacrificed everything for the freedoms we cherish today. We must all work together to get the backs of those who’ve bravely had ours.

That’s how, working with many of you, I’ve cut through red tape with the VA Community Care Network to ensure eligible North Jersey veterans are able to receive referrals for community care at ImageCare Centers across the Fifth District. We’ve made critical progress on that front.

I’m continuing to work to make sure there are adequate facilities that enable faster care, shorter travel times, and improved access to the benefits veterans have earned — especially in parts of North Jersey that have seen much harder access to VA facilities.

I want to impress upon everyone here that my door is always open for any issues that you may have, and my casework team is here today. We are always available to help with things such as cutting through red tape to access Social Security, VA benefits, and more.

I honor you and I thank you for everything that you have done, because here in the greatest country in the world, we will always take care of our own. That’s the only way to ensure that our best days will always be ahead of us.

God bless you, your families, and our troops, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

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