Sens. Tina Smith, Thom Tillis Lead Bipartisan Introduction of Bill to Support Health Care for “Atomic Veterans”

WASHINGTON, D.C. [05/11/18]—U.S. Senators Tina Smith and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) have introduced a bipartisan measure to support health care benefits for “Atomic Veterans” who were exposed to harmful radiation when they cleaned up nuclear testing sites during the late 1970s.  

The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act would allow veterans who participated in the cleanup of Enewetak Atoll on the Marshall Islands to receive the same healthcare and benefits given to other servicemembers who were involved in active nuclear tests. From 1946 to 1958 the U.S. military conducted more than 40 nuclear tests in the Islands, but the thousands of service members who cleaned up the area were never made eligible to receive health benefits under the Radiation Compensation Exposure Act.

“One of our most solemn duties is to take care of the men and women who serve in our armed forces,” said Sen. Smith. “And a big part of that means ensuring they can get the health care they need both during and after their service. The Americans who cleaned up the radiation-exposed Marshall Islands—where more than 40 nuclear tests took place in the 20th century—have been fighting for proper care for a long time, and it’s past time we stand up for them. This bipartisan bill is a commonsense fix that’s long overdue.”

“In the 1970s, thousands of courageous servicemembers were tasked with the unfathomable mission of cleaning the fallout and debris from nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands without protective gear, causing countless health issues among those involved,” said Senator Tillis. “This bipartisan legislation will recognize those veterans and ensure they are able to receive access to the medical treatment for which their service should have entitled them to long ago.”

The bipartisan Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act was introduced by Sens. Smith and Tillis and cosponsored by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Angus King (I-Maine), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) It’s named after the late Hawaii Congressman Mark Takai, a veteran of the U.S. Army and Hawaii Army National Guard who passed away in 2016 and was the original sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives.  

“When our servicemembers are harmed in the line of duty, we recognize the debt that we owe to them, and our solemn obligation to provide care and help them heal,” said Sen. Merkley. “That principle should be no different whether their injury occurs immediately in the line of fire, or decades later from the aftereffects of radiation exposure. The VA must not stand in the way of veterans receiving the care and benefits they have earned through their service to our country.”

“Expanding health care services for Atomic Veterans will assist in treating service-connected conditions without worrying about high out of pocket costs,” said Sen. Hirono. “Congressman Mark Takai’s advocacy on this issue reflected his commitment to his fellow service members, and I am proud to continue his work.”

“Atomic veterans answered our nation’s call decades ago and because of their service, were exposed to high levels of radiation,” Sen. Wyden said. “These veterans should never have to do battle with the federal bureaucracy to get the care and benefits they’ve earned.”

“Our veterans have served and sacrificed for our nation and the freedoms we all cherish. We all have a shared responsibility to do our part to do right by them,” said Sen. Baldwin. “This bipartisan legislation is an important step forward in expanding health care benefits to veterans exposed to harmful radiation. These veterans have waited far too long for this recognition and they shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for certain costs because the VA won’t accept their exposure. We need to change this and make sure Atomic Cleanup Veterans get the health care benefits they deserve.”

“Thousands of brave men and women risked their lives to clean up radioactive fallout from test sites in the Marshall lslands in the late 1970s,” said Sen. Klobuchar. “Today, some of those servicemembers and their children are suffering from cancer and heart disease due to their exposure to radiation, but they aren’t eligible for help from the Veterans Administration. Our bipartisan bill ‎will right that wrong by designating them as ‘radiation-exposed veterans,’ finally qualifying those veterans for the Veterans Administration treatment coverage they have earned.”

“Our veterans risked their lives for our country, and they deserve the absolute best care when they come home,” said Senator Gillibrand, Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee. “The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Parity Act would ensure that veterans who were exposed to radiation in the Marshall Islands four decades ago are receiving the care they need and deserve today. I am proud to cosponsor this important legislation, and I will do everything I can in the Senate to support our incredible veterans.” 

“Brave servicemembers were exposed to radiation when they helped clean up our nuclear testing sites,” said Sen. Warren. “America should keep its promise to these veterans by ensuring that they receive the VA care and benefits that they deserve.”

The service members who participated in the Marshall Islands cleanup between 1977 and 1980 suffer from high rates of cancers due to their exposure to radiation and nuclear waste, but are currently unable to receive the same treatments and service-related disability presumptions that other “radiation-exposed veterans” receive. The Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act would tackle this issue by extending key VA benefits to those who helped clean up the Marshall Islands, which remain partly uninhabitable due to high levels of radiation.

You can read a summary of the bill here.