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Former VA Secretary Stands With Veterans Affected by Burn Pits

Recently in an interview with Fox News, former VA Secretary David Shulkin, expressed his frustrations with the VA for not providing adequate benefit coverage for members returning from war, specifically those exposed to burn pits.

Shulkin took the time to praise the VA for the things he believes it does well, but was extremely critical when it came to the discussion about burn pits. “I think the VA is a terrific organization that does many, many things exceptionally well. But the area that I think that we continue to make the same mistake on, for generations of veterans, is in our benefits area,” Shulkin said in the interview with Fox News.

“We put the burden of proof back on the people who need our help, and who are sick. And, we make them show us the scientific evidence and the documentation about how they were injured. And I think that’s a backward system.” Shulkin went on to support a system in which the VA actually helps veterans find the documentation they need to get coverage, rather than putting that burden only on the people making the claims.

Shulkin spent a lot of his time at the VA fighting for coverage for those exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. He mentioned in the interview that the VA also had its apprehensions about adding exposure to Agent Orange as a presumptive condition, something he hoped would not be repeated with burn pit exposure.

Shulkin says that the pushback for his efforts to grant presumptive conditions for Agent Orange came from the Office of Management and Budget. Furthermore, he deemed it appropriate for the department to have had its concerns and to have asked questions.  “But, at some point, I think that the question has to be called, and we can’t be in a discussion or debate about these issues forever because there are human beings who are at the other end, who aren’t getting the help that they need during that time of political discussion.”

He cited this as the very thing that should be avoided in the handling of burn pit exposure. “We’re talking about people who have gone back 15 to 20 years already, who have been exposed in the 2000-2001 Gulf Wars. Frankly, it’s time for us to act,” Shulkin said.

Shulkin says the system in which any given veteran has to fight, potentially for years, has not served us or our veterans well, calling it “adversarial.” He supports the notion of a shifted burden, a system in which the VA must prove that there is not a connection between a veteran’s exposure and subsequent illness. This type of system is outlined in Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill, The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020, and is supported by a vast coalition that includes the Wounded Warrior Project, Burn Pits 360, and many other veterans advocate groups and individuals.

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