VA opposes bill aimed at helping vets in mustard gas experiments

VA opposes bill aimed at helping vets in mustard gas experiments
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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) pushed back Wednesday against a proposal aimed at making it easier for World War II veterans intentionally exposed to mustard gas in U.S. military experiments to get medical benefits. 

The VA argues that the plan could unintentionally expand coverage to all WWII veterans.

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“We fully support delivering benefits to veterans and survivors as quickly as possible,” David McLenachen, deputy undersecretary for disability assistance, told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

But he said the bill at issue “would create presumption of full-bodied mustard gas exposure and resulting service connection for every World War II veteran who files a claim for related disability benefits.”

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillMSNBC's McCaskill: Trump used 'his fat thumbs' to try to intimidate Yovanovitch GOP senator rips into Pelosi at Trump rally: 'It must suck to be that dumb' Iranian attacks expose vulnerability of campaign email accounts MORE (D-Mo.) issued a report earlier this year saying that veterans exposed to mustard gas by the U.S. have been unfairly denied benefits and introduced legislation to combat the issue.

Her bill 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.

Specifically, the bill would mandate that during the review of previous claims, the VA must presume a veteran was exposed to mustard gas until proved otherwise.

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 unsealed 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.

Just 40 veterans are receiving benefits for mustard gas exposure, and up to 90 percent of the disability claims filed from 2005 to 2015 with the Department of Veterans Affairs have been denied, according to McCaskill’s report.

“The VA established a burden of proof that is insurmountable to many impacted veterans,” she said Wednesday.

McCaskill pushed back against the notion that her bill would open the VA up to more claims, saying the burden of proof would only be flipped for those who have already filed a claim.

“There’s less than 400 of these folks still alive,” she said. “So for 400 individuals who have already applied, it would flip the burden of proof, but it would not open up claims for anyone who has not previously applied. So it’s a very limited application.”

While the VA opposes McCaskill’s bill, McLenachen said the claims are a “high priority” for the VA and pledged to continue working on them.

“We will continue to fully and sympathetically develop and adjudicate every mustard gas claim that we receive,” he said.

McCaskill was furious at the VA's response to her bill.

"The VA—whose decades-long record of ineptitude and failure for these veterans is something you’d expect them to want to correct—either didn’t read the legislation I wrote or are purposefully mischaracterizing it,” McCaskill said in a written statement Wednesday evening. “What Mr. McLenachen also declined to mention was that they provided helpful feedback to my office, feedback which we incorporated into the bill and they responded positively to. I worry this is another example of the VA’s right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.”

-- Updated at 5:59 p.m.