March 21, 2024

Ranking Member Takano: “Honoring Our PACT Act is a promise, and one that I have no interest in reneging on”

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Libby Carlson (771-216-2280)

Washington, DC – House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Mark Takano (CA-39) delivered the following opening remarks, as prepared, at the beginning of today’s Full Committee’s legislative hearing on the Toxic Exposure Act of 2024 that will undermine the Ranking Member’s landmark Honoring our PACT Act:

“Thank you for yielding, Mr. Chairman.   

The Cost of War Toxic Exposure Fund, created by my Honoring Our PACT Act, is a vital component of the law and represents our promise to toxic-exposed veterans that we will not waiver in our commitment to delivering the care and benefits they have earned.  Congress voted to establish this fund to ensure that the Department of Veterans Affairs, and most importantly veterans, would have access to the funding necessary to carry out this law in perpetuity. Honoring Our PACT is a promise, and one that I have no interest in reneging on.  

The Majority is proposing to hamstring that fund less than two years after the PACT Act became law, by capping appropriations and narrowing its purpose, which would seriously impair VA’s ability to perform the task we have assigned to it.  

In short, it would undermine the PACT Act, and I cannot support that.   

The PACT Act is huge step forward for America’s veterans because it takes seriously the implicit promise our nation makes to service members when they enlist in our military: If you get injured or disabled or sick because of your service, we will have your back. You will get medical care. You and your dependents will get compensation if you are disabled.   

Fulfilling this promise is clear when a service member loses a limb from a roadside bomb or suffers a neurological complication from a nerve agent deployed by the enemy.  The immediate effects of war are seen as the costs of war. It would be untenable for anyone to say these costs should be met based on whether we could afford to pay them.  We have an obligation to pay for them, therefore we must pay them…as the cost of war.  

The effects of toxic exposure are not often so immediate, but no less debilitating. Chronic respiratory illnesses linked to exposure to burn pits, for example, can show up in veterans many years after their deployments are done.   

Cancers that show up disproportionately in young adults after their service can reasonably be linked to service-connected toxic exposure, but they do not manifest themselves immediately.  Congress decided that twenty-three categories of illnesses would be presumed to be service-connected for service members known to have deployed in geographic areas where they could have been exposed to toxins.  We decided to treat these debilitating illnesses as the cost of war and not as expenses that we would decide on an annual basis, because it was the morally right thing to do.  

Classifying care and benefits for toxic-exposed veterans as a mandatory cost instead of an optional or discretionary cost is what we owed veterans. This was our promise through the PACT Act, much like Medicare and Social Security are our promises to the broader public. This means not subjecting veterans to a ‘hunger games’ scenario of pitting veteran against veteran, or veterans against other Americans to fight for funding.  

We agreed that we would not pit toxic-exposed veterans against other Americans in need: whether it be hungry children, seniors, those going to college, Americans who need job training, or even other veterans who use these programs.  

This legislation could have the effect of taking us back to a situation of deciding which veterans’ programs would get cut, or whether we would have to deny benefits to some cohort of toxic exposed veterans. 

However, we have today a wonderful opportunity to once again lay bare the differences between our sides in our respective approaches to providing care and treatment to toxic-exposed veterans. Sadly, it seems that for my colleagues this has only ever been a budgetary issue to solve.  Or more accurately, that our solution to addressing toxic exposure should be constrained by fiscal concerns instead of doing what is right for veterans.   

When the Committee began consideration of the PACT Act in June 2021, my colleagues were strongly opposed, with then- Ranking Member, now-Chairman Bost saying, “We need to stop wasting time marking up legislation that we know has no path to success." In fact, the Chairman was the very first ‘NO’ vote against the PACT Act in Committee.   

Dr. Murphy even went on to state: ‘We simply cannot just spend away because of emotional needs, …’ Healthcare for toxic-exposed veterans isn’t an emotional need, it is a medical one that deserves our time, attention and investment.   

Fast forward to this time two years ago, and the House for the first time passed the most expansive increase in veterans’ healthcare and benefits since the G.I. Bill, a vote which Chairman Bost was not present for.  Yet my colleagues on the other side of the aisle still largely objected to it, both in scope and cost. Led by then-Minority Leader McCarthy and Whip Scalise, 174 Republicans voted against the bill. As Chairman Bost said at the time, ‘…House Democrats’ shoved the deeply flawed policies and wildly expensive costs of the PACT Act through the House...’ And referred to the PACT Act as ‘…empty promises…’ I doubt any of the hundreds of thousands who have benefited from the law views the PACT Act as deeply flawed.  And thankfully there were 34 Republicans who showed leadership and courage and voted for the bill.  But it should have been unanimous from the beginning. 

Instead, Chairman Bost chose to push a less-than-half-measure in the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act…a provision we included in the PACT Act but that in its entirety increased healthcare access by only 24,000 veterans compared to the over 270,000-and-growing added because of the full PACT Act. Apparently shutting out the other 250,000 veterans was okay with our Majority because it kept the ‘wildly expensive’ costs down. 

Thankfully, when the House voted for the final time on the PACT Act in July 2022, most of my Republican colleagues including Chairman Bost had seen the light…or read the political tea leaves…and came around to supporting the legislation.  Yet even then my colleagues expressed reservations about the funding mechanism in the bill.  To again quote the Chairman, ‘…the fund is also a budgetary ploy by the Democrats to take existing healthcare costs that have nothing to do with toxic exposure and transfer them from discretionary to mandatory spending.’ 

Well Mr. Chairman, shifting healthcare costs from the discretionary side of the ledger to the mandatory side was exactly the point.  We made a promise through the PACT Act to our veterans…it’s what the ‘P’ in PACT stands for…that they will have access to healthcare for conditions related to toxic exposure.  And the Cost of War Toxic Exposure Fund is the mechanism through which we are ensuring that promise is kept, for this generation and for future ones as well.  Why are you now trying to walk away from that?  I refuse to go back to a time when veterans must compete with other domestic spending priorities for funding.  And I refuse to concede that cost should be an issue when addressing the legacy of toxic exposure among our veterans.   

Does the Majority propose to tell us today which of the 270,000 veterans newly enrolled into VA healthcare they don’t want to serve?  I doubt it.  Will you detail for us today which of the 830,000 veterans with approved PACT Act disability claims you feel shouldn’t have been awarded benefits? Of course you won’t.   

Perhaps the message the Majority intends to send with caps on the Cost of War Toxic Exposure Fund, is that VA has done enough.  That they shouldn’t approve any more disability claims or add any more veterans to the healthcare rolls or create any new presumptions of service-connection. I highly doubt that is the case either.

So then why, again, are we here?  The only answer to that question that I can muster, is that the Majority once again wants to pretend that it is the party of fiscal conservatism. Only this time, it comes at the expense of toxic-exposed veterans and their care. To that, Mr. Chairman, I will leave you with one other quote, this time from the Gentleman from Montana Rep. Rosendale who so aptly said, ‘We are willing to spend far too much money to engage in conflict, and far too little to care for our warriors once they come home.’

Mr. Chairman, I couldn’t agree more.  I yield back.