WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, applauded the Senate’s passage of the Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act with key provisions he championed to bring relief to veterans exposed to harmful chemicals and to support female and student veterans.
“This bill is a victory for our nation’s veterans,” Blumenthal said. “Our legislation takes a significant step towards providing major relief to thousands of veterans exposed to Agent Orange and those harmed by toxic substances at K2. By expanding the successful peer support model I have long championed, it will ensure female veterans have access to the care they need. It also extends a helping hand to student veterans who have been affected by the pandemic. I am proud to have fought for these provisions to help our country’s bravest.”
Blumenthal championed the following provisions that were included in the legislation passed by the Senate to help veterans:
· Removing Barriers for Veterans Exposed to Agent Orange: This provision will require a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) briefing and report on repealing barriers that prevent veterans who suffer from exposure to herbicide agents like Agent Orange from receiving disability compensation. It is an amended version of the Agent Orange Exposure Fairness Act introduced by Blumenthal in February 2019. Blumenthal invited Gerry Wright, a U.S. Army veteran who suffers from permanent medical conditions caused by the herbicide, as his guest to the 2019 State of the Union address in order to draw attention to this important issue.
· Bringing Relief to Veterans Harmed at the K2 Air Base: This provision requires a thorough study of linkages between K2 toxic exposure and cancers and other diseases. It requires the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to complete a study within 10 years to identify incidents of cancer and other diseases or illnesses experienced by individuals who served at K2 Air Base in Uzbekistan between October 1, 2001, and September 30, 2005. The bill also expands the definition of an open burn pit, for purposes of the VA’s open burn pit registry, to include burn pits located on land in Uzbekistan. Blumenthal introduced this bipartisan legislation with U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK).
· Expanding Peer Support for Female Veterans: This provision expands female veterans’ access to peer specialists, support experts with lived experience trained to support veterans’ unique needs. The provision directs the VA to carry out a study, in consultation with the VA Inspector General, on the number of women Peer Specialists, including the distribution of women Peer Support Specialists across the country, and the size and distribution of the women veteran population they serve. It also requires VA to create a staffing plan for women Peer Specialists. Blumenthal has long championed programs to expand veterans’ access to peer specialists, authoring the Veteran PEER Act – included in the MISSION Act and signed into law in 2018 – which integrated peer specialists into patient-aligned care teams to promote the use of services for mental health, substance use disorder, and behavioral health in a primary care setting.
· Protecting Student Veterans Impacted by COVID-19 Pandemic Hardships: The bill includes multiple provisions that would protect student veterans’ GI Bill rights through the duration of the pandemic, allowing for the continuation of education and housing benefits. It also provides the continued payment of subsistence allowance benefits if the Secretary of the VA determines a student was negatively affected by the COVID-19 emergency. These provisions heed calls by Blumenthal in related legislation to protect student veterans impacted by the hardships of the pandemic.
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