In Bayonne, Menendez calls for PACT Act passage to expand veteran health care benefits


U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) urged his colleagues to pass the bipartisan PACT Act to expand health care benefits to more than 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxins during their service.

By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, better known as the PACT Act, includes Menendez’s bill that improves benefits for Gulf War Veterans by expanding access.

The legislation also addresses illnesses from exposure to toxic burn pits and expand presumptions related to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam war.

“They burned it [trash] indiscriminately. They burned it next to where those were serving. And the toxic fumes that emanated from that were inhaled. For many of them, it created a life-changing set of circumstances,” he said at the press event.

“For far too long as our sons and daughters have returned from overseas, they’ve had to face a bureaucratic maze just to get treatment for illnesses they contracted while serving.

The PACT Act would add 23 burn pit and toxic exposure conditions to the Veteran’s Administration (VA) list of issues they deem treatable and it would also increase federal research on toxic exposure and increase funding for the VA claims processing and healthcare facilities.

Menendez explained the bill would be paid for through mandatory spending, not annual appropriations, which would protect it from annual partisan budgetary fights.

He also described navigating the VA as a “bureaucratic nightmare.”

“The VA had them fill out a separate questionnaire for each symptom. Adjudicators at the VA would then order tests for symptoms without considering the factors that connected one illness to multiple symptoms,” the senator explained.

“Claims for Gulf War illness were more likely to take longer and were denied than other service-related disabilities.”

Afghan and Iraq war veterans both also experienced similar issues, but Afghan veterans were not initially deemed eligible to be treated for Gulf War Illness by the VA.

Menendez explained the bill is named after Sgt. 1st class Heath Robinson. who was deployed to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard and died in 2020 of toxic exposure from his service.

“There is no other group in the United States that we all need to stand behind than our veterans. Anybody who is willing to guard a post of freedom, at the end of their tour of duty as a grateful nation, we owe it to every single veteran to take care of them because they took care of our freedom,” noted Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis.

“We should be doing this without thinking about it. It’s up to us to make sure we do right for the people who stood up for our freedom.”

Michael Embrich, a Navy veteran who joined after 9/11 and a Bayonne native, spoke about his personal experiences.

“I returned to a government that was ill-equipped to meet the needs of return service members and veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he stated.

“Post 9/11 veterans, poisoned from toxic exposure, things that they burned, some of it pretty unmentionable for a press conference that they breathed in, got sick, and were ignored. These illnesses take many years if not decades to become apparent.”

Additionally, Donza Taylor Sr., a veteran of both wars in Iraq, noted the value of the VA recognizing the time that Gulf War Illness takes to manifest.

“We need our veteran staff trained. Inadequate training results in our vets being denied claims,” he said.

Flournoy Gethers VFW Post 7470 Commander Barry Jones noted Menendez is chair of the U.S. Foreign Relations Committee.

“As chair, he is very aware of the challenges that America faces abroad and the challenges our troops face. He makes sure they get the resources. They need more than just thank you. They need access to healthcare, housing, and job opportunities.”

Menendez also commented on gun safety reform and commended the work done by U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Chris Murphy (D-CT), establishing a framework for a possible compromise bill.

“For 30 years, inaction and partisanship have dominated and defined Congress’ response to the rising gun violence epidemic,” he said.

“Every mass shooting is the result of a policy failure, and thoughts and prayers, while certainly welcome, don’t change that reality. We need for the Senate to take action.”

Menendez noted the details of a bill have not been worked out, but a framework has been agreed upon.

He said they agreed to establish red flag laws, prohibit individuals who committed domestic violence offenses from buying guns, and create new penalties for the illegal purchase and trafficking of guns.

“This agreement would break 30 years of logjam in Congress. I’ll continue fighting for reforms that could prevent mass shootings like banning high-capacity magazines, requiring universal background checks, and raising the age to buy assault weapons,” Menendez continued.

“There isn’t a single minute to waste in stopping the carnage of children. You don’t need 50 to 100 rounds to hunt down a deer.”

Menendez said he’s also in favor of banning assault weapons from being sold.

The senator’s son, 8th District Democratic congressional nominee Rob Menendez and Assemblyman Will Sampson also attended the event.

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