Spanberger Urges U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to Strengthen VA Benefits for Veteran Firefighters, Recognize Long-Term Risks of Military Firefighting

Since 2020, the Congresswoman Has Led Bipartisan Legislation to Recognize Service-Connected Illnesses of Veteran Firefighters — Named after Former U.S. Air Force Firefighter & Virginian Michael Lecik

HENRICO, V.A. — U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger today called on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to move forward with the formal process of extending VA benefits to Veteran firefighters living with chronic illnesses.

Earlier this year, Spanberger voted to pass the bipartisan Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act — also known as the Honoring Our PACT Act — and President Biden signed the bill into law in August. This law extends new benefits to Veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their U.S. military service, but it does not automatically cover military firefighters.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis R. McDonough, Spanberger encouraged the VA to examine the link between hazards encountered while military firefighting and certain chronic illnesses. Additionally, she highlighted how the current process excludes former military firefighters who were exposed to toxic substances and does not allow this group of Veterans to receive the benefits they have earned.

“While the newly enacted Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act does not automatically extend disability benefits to military firefighters, it does create a streamlined process for the VA to establish new presumptions for service connection based on toxic exposures,” said Spanberger. “Specifically, the Honoring Our PACT Act establishes a Working Group comprised of Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration personnel to assess toxic exposures and which conditions might be linked to toxic exposures.”

Spanberger continued, “As the Working Group examines potential new presumptions of service connection, the VA should consider the link between hazards encountered during military firefighting and chronic illnesses such as heart diseases, lung disease, and cancer.”

Spanberger has long focused on making sure that Veteran firefighters receive the recognition, benefits, and support they’ve earned through their service.

Last year, Spanberger and U.S. Representative Don Bacon (R-NE-02) reintroduced their bipartisan Michael Lecik Military Firefighters Protection Act, which would provide America’s veteran firefighters with the fair compensation, healthcare, and retirement benefits they’ve earned through their service. Spanberger and Bacon first introduced the legislation in January 2020.

The legislation is named after Virginian Michael Lecik, a former U.S. Air Force firefighter who was twice deployed to the Middle East. Following his military service, Lecik became a civilian firefighter and then became Chief Fire Inspector at U.S. Army Garrison Fort Lee. He also served as the Assistant Fire Chief of the Huguenot Volunteer Fire Department. In February 2019, Lecik was diagnosed with multiple myeloma — a condition tied to the high-risk, carcinogenic workplace conditions that come with being a military firefighter. Yet, the VA refused to recognize the service connection of his illness and repeatedly denied him benefits. He passed away last year.

In May 2021, Spanberger honored Lecik’s life, family, and legacy on the floor of the U.S. House and pushed for the passage of this legislation named in his honor.

Click here to read Spanberger’s letter, and the full letter text is below.

Dear Secretary McDonough:

I am writing to you regarding U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care benefits and disability compensation for U.S. veterans who honorably served our country as military firefighters and today suffer from cancer, lung disease, heart disease, and other chronic or life-threatening illnesses.

Military firefighters save lives and protect property by performing rescue and firefighting operations during structural fires, aircraft emergencies, vehicle emergencies, and wildland fires. In addition to fighting fires, they also respond to hazardous materials spills, provide first aid, conduct inspections, and assist civilian fire departments.

Throughout their service, military firefighters are exposed to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their turnout gear and the aqueous film-forming foam used to extinguish fires. PFAS are associated with adverse health effects, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), “military and civilian firefighters who use PFAS containing foams in training and wear PFAS impregnated gear” have an increased risk of exposure compared to the general population.

Military firefighters are also routinely exposed to a mixture of combustion products from fires, diesel exhaust, asbestos, and other hazards. Earlier this year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) created a Working Group of 25 experts to review the scientific literature surrounding the carcinogenicity of firefighters’ occupational exposure. Previously, the IARC had classified firefighter occupational exposures as “possibly” carcinogenic. On July 1, 2022, the Working Group re-classified occupational exposure as a firefighter as carcinogenic to humans. The new “Group 1” classification puts firefighting in the same risk category as tobacco and benzene.

Despite their known exposure to these hazards, military firefighters are consistently denied disability benefits from the VA because there is not a presumption of service connection between the hazards military firefighters are exposed to and serious illnesses. One such veteran was Mike Lecik, an Air Force Firefighter, an assistant fire chief with the Defense Department and the assistant chief at the Huguenot Volunteer Fire Department in Powhatan County, Virginia. As an Air Force firefighter, Mike deployed twice to the Middle East. After coming home to Central Virginia, he was proud to serve in his local volunteer fire department. Mike cared deeply for his community and his country. A few years ago, Mike was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer linked to the dangerous conditions of his service as an Air Force firefighter. He passed away in March 2021 at the age of 41 leaving behind a wife and three wonderful daughters.

To ensure veteran firefighters – like Mike Lecik – receive the healthcare benefits they’ve earned through their service, I introduced the Michael Lecik Military Firefighters Protection Act. This bill would create the presumption that veteran firefighters who become disabled by serious diseases connected to firefighting — including heart disease, lung disease, and certain cancers — contracted the illness due to their service in the military.

While the newly enacted Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act does not automatically extend disability benefits to military firefighters, it does create a streamlined process for the VA to establish new presumptions for service connection based on toxic exposures. The new process ensures the VA can make faster policy decisions on critical exposure-related health concerns impacting America’s veterans.

Specifically, the Honoring Our PACT Act establishes a Working Group comprised of Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration personnel to assess toxic exposures and which conditions might be linked to toxic exposures. The Working Group makes recommendations to the VA on which conditions should receive a formal evaluation of the association between toxic exposure and adverse health outcomes.

After receiving reports from the Working Group, the VA conducts a formal evaluation and provides a final recommendation on whether to establish a presumption of service connection. At this point, the Secretary must either establish a presumption of service connection or publicly justify why a presumption is not warranted.

As the Working Group examines potential new presumptions of service connection, the VA should consider the link between hazards encountered during military firefighting and chronic illnesses such as heart diseases, lung disease, and cancer.

As President Biden recently stated, “Cancer is a leading killer of firefighters. Toxic substances [they’ve] been exposed to as part of [their] job are almost certainly — certainly connected to those cancer diagnoses.”

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

— 

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