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Udall Meets With VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Regarding Help For Veterans Exposed To Burn Pits...

on March 19, 2019 - 5:07am
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall
WASHINGTON, D.C. U.S. Sen. Tom Udall met with the U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert Wilkie to discuss the urgent need to enact bipartisan legislation to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, address staffing shortages and decreasing capabilities at the New Mexico VA Health Care System, and other issues critical to health and wellbeing of veterans in New Mexico and across the country.
Udall has long worked to ensure that New Mexico veterans receive better access to the medical treatment they need. In 2013, Udall, along with former U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), authored legislation to establish the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry to help veterans, doctors, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), monitor veterans' health, keep them informed about studies and treatments, and improve programs to help veterans who are concerned that they may have been exposed to toxic chemicals while they were deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. This year, Udall introduced bipartisan legislation, the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act, to strengthen and enhance the burn pit registry, which passed the House of Representatives last week and is now pending on the Senate legislative calendar.
During the meeting, Udall pressed Wilkie to support the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act and delivered a letter detailing his work around the issue, including securing language in a recent appropriations bill to provide $5 million to improve the burn pit registry and recommending language requiring the VA to work with the Department of Defense to increase research into rare cancers that often result from exposure to burn pits. In the letter, Udall expressed concerns about a $17 million cut to medical research in the VA’s budget, urging the VA to work with Congress to reverse the cut and fund research necessary to establish a service presumption.
“The ultimate goal of the registry and the purpose of my work on burn pits is to establish a presumption for medical conditions that result from exposure. Veterans who have been injured in service should not have to jump through hoops,” Udall wrote. “I believe that the evidence supports such a change, but I know the VA would like more evidence before establishing a presumption. It is therefore concerning that your budget recommended a $17 million cut to medical research funded through the VA.”
Udall also urged the VA to address staffing shortages and decreasing capabilities at the New Mexico VA Health Care System. He raised issues related to Raymond G. Murphy Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VA Hospital) in Albuquerque, which recently received a lowered complexity rating due to the loss of its neurosurgery department, and reiterated his commitment to helping the VA to better recruit and retain high-quality personnel at its facilities.
“Although these are national issues, some are particularly acute in New Mexico,” wrote Udall. “The complexity rating of Albuquerque’s Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center was changed from a 1A to a 1B facility last year. This is a clear sign of decreasing capabilities for treating veterans within the VA. The loss of the medical center’s neurosurgery department was the biggest contributor to the lower rating. This is one example of a broader problem where the VA has become less competitive in its ability to recruit specialists. Although, I am encouraged by new programs in New Mexico like the residencies for mental health practitioners, more can be done.”
The full text of the letter is available HERE.