Dem senator: Veterans exposed to mustard gas denied benefits

Veterans intentionally exposed to mustard gas during World War II experiments by the U.S. military have not gotten the benefits to which they are entitled, according to a report released Tuesday by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

“The way these servicemen have been treated for the last seven decades takes my breath away,” McCaskill said in a written statement. “It’s critical that we take immediate action to help the veterans whose government turned its back on them—and we need to acknowledge the tragic sacrifice they’ve made for their country, and our government’s failure to care for them.”

Just 40 veterans are receiving benefits for mustard gas exposure, and most of the disability claims filed from 2005 to 2015 with the Department of Veterans Affairs have been denied, according to the report.

To correct the issue, McCaskill is proposing legislation that would mandate a review of previously denied claims, lower the bar to get the benefits, revamp the VA’s application and adjudication process and mandate an investigation by the VA and Pentagon to determine what went wrong with the process.

“Congress should have done more sooner,” McCaskill said in a conference call with reporters. “There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

During World War II, the military exposed about 60,000 service members to mustard gas and another chemical agent called lewisite in an effort to test protective equipment. The classified tests were declassified in 1975.

Still, veterans who were part of the tests were barred from seeking treatment because of an oath of secrecy. In 1991, the Veterans Affairs secretary announced new guidelines for compensating veterans who were exposed to mustard gas, effectively lifting the oath.

But veterans have been unable to claim their benefits for multiple reasons, according to the report.

First, the VA did not adequately notify the veterans of their eligibility. There have been just two outreach efforts, according to the report, one in 1991 and another in 2004.

Second, the VA’s list of eligible medical conditions is incomplete. A 1993 study from the Institute of Medicine commissioned by the VA listed 14 conditions associated with mustard gas exposure, but the report recommended the VA do more long-term research to better understand the long-term effects. The VA never did that additional research, according to the report.

Third, a database maintained by the Pentagon of veterans exposed to chemical or biological agents is incomplete. The Chem-Bio Database lists 4,618 veterans, which McCaskill’s staff found to be lacking.

“For example, the VA has granted compensation attributed to mustard agent exposure to 21 veterans who are not included within the Chem-Bio Database,” the report says.

Fourth, the VA’s process for determining claims of full-body exposure is opaque, the report says. The VA first searches the Chem-Bio Database. If the veteran is not in the database, the VA attempts to verify the claim in other ways, often also involving the Defense Department.

But more than 20 percent of those who have been approved for benefits were approved at the VA’s discretion, not through the official verification process as outlined by a manual, according to the report.

“While the manual provides step-by-step guidance for VA staff to take in verifying exposure and determining whether a veteran has the appropriate condition, it does not provide guidance to VA staff regarding how and when to exercise discretion to approve benefits when the Defense Department cannot verify full-body exposure,” the report says.

Fifth, the burden of proof often falls on the veteran, and missing or inaccurate records make proving their claim impossible, according to the report. A 1973 fire destroyed many of the records, and many of those that exist don’t say the veteran was exposed to mustard gas, likely because it was classified.

Because of the impediments to proving claims, according to the report, most have been denied.

The exact rate of denials is unclear. In 2015, the VA told McCaskill’s office that 1,028 disability claims out of 1,213 from 2005 to 2015 were denied, an 84.7 percent denial rate. But in 2016, the VA told the senator’s office that 1,427 claims out of 1,562 from the same time period were denied, a rate of 91.4 percent. 

“Of the World War II veterans who were exposed that are still alive, the majority of them are elderly and in poor health,” the report says. “Time is running out for the VA, the Defense Department and Congress to act to ensure that these veterans receive the compensation and care they deserve.”

Updated at 1:07 p.m. 

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