Washington, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health Ranking Member Julia Brownley (D-CA) gave the following opening statement at the Subcommittee’s hearing on burn pit exposure.
Opening Statement as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you Mr. Chairman.
Every era of veterans has experienced some type of environmental, radiological, chemical, or biological hazard while on the battlefield.
Most recently, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom era servicemembers were exposed to airborne toxins – many of which we have yet to identify.
We sent our servicemembers to fight abroad, and now, DOD and VA have a responsibility to properly address their healthcare needs when they come home.
The DOD and VA must work together with clinicians and investigators to identify all veterans who may have been exposed to airborne hazards.
This “need to know” has resulted in numerous VA-maintained registries.
While today’s hearing is centered around only one of these registries, I urge today’s witnesses to consider whether the value of these registries would be vastly improved by consolidating them into one.
One “Master Registry” would likely be easier for both veterans, physicians, and investigators to navigate.
With that said, today’s hearing is focused in part on the Airborne Hazards and Open-air Burn Pit Registry.
The exposure of post 9/11 era veterans stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan to airborne hazards because of the military’s use of open-air burn pits has affected an untold number of servicemembers and veterans.
For this reason, in 2012 Congress required VA to establish the Open Burn Pit Registry.
The Open Burn Pit Registry is an effort to identify and monitor the health effects of toxic airborne chemical and fumes on veterans exposed to these open-air burn pits.
While, in its current state, it cannot be the basis of scientific research – it can help the VA to define research questions and allow the VA to update and track participants.
However, it does have its limitations, as outlined by the National Academy of Sciences.
As this registry is voluntary and based on self-reported information, investigators cannot link airborne hazards and long-term health effects.
This is disappointing as this era of veterans need help now.
One way the VA has attempted to advance research is through its War Related Injury and Illness Center Airborne Hazards Center of Excellence.
By flagging veterans with particularly complex or unique symptoms or diagnoses that were exposed to airborne hazards for more complete evaluations, not only is VA capturing much needed data, but also ensuring they receive advanced clinical care through expertly prepared treatment plans.
However, VA’s ability to advance this type of research is limited by DOD’s cooperation in efforts to identify servicemembers exposed to burn pits.
That’s why it is both unfortunate and disappointing that the agency who will need to be a true partner is unwilling to participate in today’s discussion.
Furthermore, until a fully interoperable electronic health record system is set up between the two agencies, VA will continue to be beholden to DOD’s willingness to cooperate.
For this reason, it is of utmost importance that VA’s Electronic Health Records Modernization team is in direct communication with both VA clinicians and VA investigators, and I look forward to hearing more from the VA on this issue.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding today’s hearing, and thank you to each of the witnesses for the work you have done to ensure these veterans are neither forgotten or overlooked.