U.S. Senators Tina Smith & Thom Tillis, U.S. Representative Grace Meng Lead Bipartisan Push to Support Health Care for Veterans Exposed to Radiation

WASHINGTON, D.C. [3/3/21]—Today, U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and U.S. Representative Grace Meng (D-NY 6), reintroduced their bipartisan bill in the Senate and the House to secure 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 health care 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 servicemembers who cleaned up the area were never made eligible to receive health benefits under the Radiation Compensation Exposure Act.

 “We have a solemn duty to take care of the men and women who serve in our armed forces—a big part of that means ensuring they can get the health care they need both during and after their service.” said Sen. Smith. “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. We need to stand up for them, and we can do so by delivering on this commonsense, bipartisan fix.”

“The courageous servicemembers who were assigned to cleaning the fallout and debris from nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands without protective gear in the 1970s deserve the highest quality medical care,” said Sen. Tillis. “The fact that those servicemembers have had to fight for the same level of care as other radiation-exposed veterans is a systemic failure we must correct. This bipartisan legislation is long overdue and will ensure that those veterans receive access to the medical treatment they are entitled to.”

“Veterans who helped clean up Enewetak Atoll—which was the site of over 40 nuclear tests conducted by the United States—deserve access to VA benefits and critical care for exposure to radiation and nuclear waste,” said Congresswoman Grace Meng. “These veterans have higher rates of cancers and diseases but are currently unable to receive the same treatments and service-related disability presumptions that other ‘radiation-exposed veterans’ receive. This error must be corrected, and I am proud to reintroduce this legislation with Senators Smith and Tillis to make that happen. We must help these veterans and I look forward to Congress passing our bill and sending it to President Biden’s desk.”

In addition to Sens. Smith and Tillis, the bill is cosponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Angus King (I-Maine), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). The bill is 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.  

The servicemembers 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 access text of the bill here.