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Sen. Chuck Schumer

Sen. Chuck Schumer with Jerry Chiano's family surround a photo at the Long Island Veteran's home in Stony Brook Dec. 20.

Before Vietnam vet Jerry Chiano of Valley Stream died in 2017 after battling a rare form of bile duct cancer, he fought to raise awareness by urging Vietnam vets to get tested for liver fluke exposure. The tiny worm, found in Southeast Asia, can be transmitted to humans after they eat raw or uncooked fish. The parasite lives in the biliary system and is the known cause of bile duct cancer. 

“It’s such a crazy disease,” said Chiano’s daughter, Jennifer Paglino. “My father wanted other people to know about it, so they’d get the treatment and benefits they deserve.” 

Chiano’s awareness campaign garnered the support of researchers at the Northport VA Medical Center, who concluded that same year in a pilot study that one in four local Vietnam vets who ate raw or uncooked fish while deployed were exposed to the parasite. 

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sounded alarms in late December, stating the study remains largely unused. He’s urging the VA to look seriously at the issue and Northport VA’s work, noting that benefit claims for the disease have increased sixfold since 2003, while 80 percent of the claims submitted in 2015 have been denied.

The VA is conducting the Vietnam Era Veterans Mortality Study, a national effort that will look at data from everyone who served in the military during the Vietnam era, from Feb. 28, 1961 through May 7, 1975, and compare mortality rates for all ailments, including bile duct cancer. Results for that study are pending. 

The agency did not say if that study would dictate whether or not bile duct cancer is considered a service-related disease. 

Representative Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1) said he hopes the VA’s new large-scale research mission “will pave the way for infected veterans to receive the treatment they have earned.”

Schumer is demanding that the Northport research be used. 

He noted that the situation raises questions about the VA process for acknowledging service-related illnesses and how its researchers use the statistically based science of epidemiology, which links exposure to disease. 

The VA website clearly states that liver fluke exposure can cause bile duct cancer. Yet, a VA spokesperson said in an email that the Northport research is flawed, while discounting the risks. 

“The VA is not aware of any studies that show that bile duct cancer occurs more often in U.S. Vietnam veterans than in any other group of people,” he stated. 

Schumer pointed out how the VA initially found in 2009 limited evidence to suggest that exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides during the Vietnam War caused Parkinson’s disease. Months later, it reversed its decision and added the disease to the list of covered conditions connected to exposure to herbicide agents. 

Schumer and the entire Long Island congressional delegation — Zeldin, Tom Suozzi (D-NY-3), Peter King (R-NY-2) and Kathleen Rice (D-NY-4) — have urged the VA to study the issue. 

“Local vets, some of whom are already sick, need reassurance that these studies lead to answers on service-related health claims, while others have passed away while fighting for awareness and VA testing,” Schumer stated. 

As the VA embarks on another large-scale research mission on toxins and environmental exposure, Schumer underscores the importance of using the Northport data. 

“We have samples, antigen markers and more; there’s good stuff here from this smaller study, but it is largely sitting on a shelf, as we are here today to say: use what’s useful,” he said. 

However, the VA bluntly states: “No future VA studies will utilize data from the Northport VA Medical Center’s pilot Liver Fluke study …” 

In an email, the VA spokesperson explained that the Northport VA liver fluke study relied on a test used in Asia, where the disease is prevalent, which is not FDA approved. It also noted, among other things, that the Northport VA study lacked control groups. Plus, he said, none of the patients who tested positive for liver fluke exposure actually suffer from bile duct cancer. 

Gerald Wiggins a Vietnam vet from Port Jefferson Station took part in the Northport VA liver fluke study and was one of 12 veterans found to have been exposed to the parasite. He does not have bile duct cancer, but he said he had two bile duct cysts removed in September 2017 at Sloan Kettering. 

The disease, he said, is a ticking time bomb. He can’t understand why the government isn’t supporting veterans. At 71 years old, he said it’s late for him. But he believes every veteran who served in Southeast Asia and areas prone to the parasite should be tested. 

“Ten people came down with Zika virus in Florida and within two weeks the federal government gave $600 million to fight it,” he said. “As a vet, I laid my life on the line and got nothing.” 

He submitted a VA claim, which he said was denied. His other insurance picked up the tab.

George Psvedos, an infectious disease specialist and a Northport VA physician, conducted the study. The Northport VA was unsuccessful in gaining clearance for an interview from the VA. But, as noted in his research conclusion statement, his study was the first to show evidence of exposure to liver fluke in U.S. soldiers deployed in Vietnam. He called for more research to examine the link between a Vietnam exposure and the likelihood of veterans developing bile duct cancer.  

Currently, no validated test for liver fluke infection is available for clinical use in the United States, according to the VA website. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not recommending serological testing for exposure, the VA said. 

The Northport VA said that if veterans express concerns or symptoms of bile duct cancer, the VA screens them right away. 

Meanwhile, the prognosis for bile duct cancer is poor, with a 30 percent five-year survival rate, according to the American Cancer Society.

Jerry Chiano stands in front of an American flag dangling his dog tags.

As for Chiano, he ultimately died of an esophageal bleed, his daughter said, caused by throat cancer induced by exposure to Agent Orange.

“He thought he was going to die of bile duct cancer,” said Paglino. “We thought [his dying of Agent Orange exposure] was his way of making sure that my mother received VA benefits after he died.”

Survival benefits for veteran’s families are extended when a veteran’s disease is considered service related. Veterans enrolled in VA health care are eligible for VA-provided cancer care, the agency said. 

“VA encourages all veterans who feel their military service has affected their health to submit a claim, which will be adjudicated using the latest scientific and medical evidence available,” said VA spokesperson Susan Carter.

Suozzi is also still following the issue.

“At minimum, we owe Vietnam veterans answers on whether they were exposed to cancer-causing parasites while serving, and the Northport VA’s study nearly two years ago was an important step in confirming that,” he said. “This data could prove instrumental in ensuring affected veterans are taken care of nationwide. I strongly urge the Veterans Administration to include this important study in their future research or, at least explain in detail why they will not.” 

Photos from Jennifer Paglino

A temporary heating and air conditioning unit installed at the homeless shelter of Northport VA medical center. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Standing in front of Northport Veterans Medical Center’s shuttered homeless shelter on Monday morning, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said the center requires $15 million in emergency repairs to its heating and air-conditioning systems. Or, it faces the possibility of closing more buildings and its operating rooms again this summer.

“It’s hard to believe, but the dog days of summer are on our doorstep,” Schumer said. “The existing HVAC systems at this veterans center aren’t functioning. To shut down surgeries, to shut down treatment for our veterans is an absolute disgrace.”

Schumer called for the Department of Veterans Affairs to immediately cut an emergency check for more than $15 million to the Northport medical center April 9. The funding would come from the roughly $4 billion set aside in a recently passed federal spending bill to repair and upgrade veterans medical centers across the nation. The senator said he pushed for that funding to be approved specifically with Northport VA in mind.

“We have an emergency here; it’s worse than most other places,” Schumer said. “My message to the VA as summer looms is simple: Don’t make our Long Island veterans sweat over their health care.”

To shut down surgeries, to shut down treatment for our veterans is an absolute disgrace.”

— Chuck Schumer

Standing with Northport VAMC Director D. Scott Guermonprez, Schumer noted the 42-bed homeless shelter was closed in January after its heating system failed during a cold snap. In February, the hospital had to close five of its operating rooms due to an air-conditioning system malfunction, which caused 18 surgeries to be postponed.

The 91-year-old facility provides medical care and services to approximately 130,000 veterans living on Long Island, according to Guermonprez. Its buildings were constructed between 1927 and 1931, a time during which windows were opened and large ceiling fans used to circulate cool outdoor air. While these structures were retrofitted with supplemental heating and cooling systems, Guermonprez said, it was never fully to modern standards.

“As we replace them, we’ll ensure that we have new systems going in place, we’re not fixing the ones that are here today,” he said.

My message to the VA as summer looms is simple: Don’t make our Long Island veterans sweat over their health care.”

— Chuck Schumer

According to Schumer’s estimates, the Northport VA’s hospital will require roughly half of the $15 million to fix long-standing heating ventilation and air-conditioning issues. In 2016, the hospital was forced to close its operating rooms for four months as the air-conditioning system wasn’t properly filtering, but rather spitting particles into the air. The same unit is still in use today, according to Schumer, and needs immediate replacement, as it is 12 years past its maximum advised life span, for $2.5 million. It’s estimated that $5 million would be needed to cover duct work and air volume control boxes to regulate air flow and room temperature in the hospital.

The Northport VA hospital also needs approximately $700,000 to replace the heating and air-conditioning systems in its isolation units for infectious disease patients. These four rooms, located on the second floor, currently cannot be used.

Other buildings that require repairs and upgrades include the hospital’s pharmacy storage, the post-traumatic stress disorder treatment center and the administrative building.

“We have a $4 billion pot of money, $15 million isn’t too much to ask,” Schumer said. “We need to get it now before summer.”

In addition to the repairs, the VA medical center director said he has hired a new chief engineer and is in the process of reorganizing its engineering department to have the skills necessary to maintain and upkeep new, high-tech heating and air-conditioning units once they are in place.

Local officials weigh in on President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris Agreement

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, helped to establish the United States Climate Alliance in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Lawmakers signed a bill protecting the Long Island Sound last year. File photo from Cuomo’s office

By Alex Petroski

U.S. President Donald Trump’s (R) decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a global effort to combat the threat of climate change, elicited strong responses from around the world. One of the more notable reactions came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who along with the governors of California and Washington State established the United States Climate Alliance. The coalition will convene the three states, and others that have come out in support of the initiative, in committing to uphold the parameters of the Paris Agreement despite Trump’s June 1 announcement. As of June 5 the alliance included 13 members — 12 states and Puerto Rico.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order establishing the United States Climate Alliance. Image from governor’s website

“The White House’s reckless decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement has devastating repercussions not only for the United States, but for our planet,” Cuomo said in a statement. “New York State is committed to meeting the standards set forth in the Paris accord regardless of Washington’s irresponsible actions. We will not ignore the science and reality of climate change, which is why I am also signing an executive order confirming New York’s leadership role in protecting our citizens, our environment and our planet.”

The Paris Agreement, which officially took effect in November 2016, aimed to strengthen the response to climate change globally by keeping temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius during the current century and also strengthen countries’ ability to deal with the effects of climate change. The U.S. is now one of only three nations on the planet not included in the agreement.

According to Cuomo, the United States Climate Alliance will seek to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels and meet or exceed the targets of the federal Clean Power Plan, each of which were self-imposed U.S. goals of the Paris Agreement. The Clean Power Plan was established in 2015 to establish state-by-state targets for carbon emission reductions. Trump signed an executive order early on in his administration placing a hold on the plan and pledging a review. Cuomo also announced New York State will be investing $1.65 billion in renewable energy and energy efficiency in the aftermath of Trump’s decision. In addition he said he aims to create 40,000 clean energy jobs by 2020.

Republican New York State Sens. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) did not respond to requests for comment through spokespersons.

Local officials from across the political spectrum spoke out about Trump’s decision in the aftermath of the announcement.

“We live on an island and have already begun to see some of the effects of our rising seas,” Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said in a statement. “To protect Brookhaven for our children and generations to come it is our responsibility to take action now. The president’s announcement today regarding the Paris climate accord is disappointing. On behalf of our residents, I will continue to fight to protect our environment.”

Democrats including 3rd Congressional District U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and others blasted the decision in public statements.

“President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement is a devastating failure of historic proportions,” Schumer said. “Future generations will look back on President Trump’s decision as one of the worst policy moves made in the 21st century because of the huge damage to our economy, our environment and our geopolitical standing. Pulling out of the Paris Agreement doesn’t put America first, it puts America last in recognizing science, in being a world leader and protecting our own shoreline, our economy and our planet.”

New York State 4th District Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) expressed support for the newly minted climate alliance on Twitter, sharing the hashtag “#LeadNotLeave.”

First Congressional District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said in an emailed statement through a spokeswoman that he supported many of the goals of the Paris Agreement, but thought the U.S. “approached this entire agreement all wrong.” He criticized former President Barack Obama (D), who played a leadership role in establishing the Paris Agreement, for bypassing Congress in reaching the agreement and for what he viewed as outsized pledges made by the U.S. compared to other world powers in the agreement.

“What we need to do moving forward should include continuing to take an international approach to protect clean air and clean water, and reduce emissions that are impacting our climate, but we must negotiate it correctly so that we aren’t over promising, under delivering and causing unnecessary harm,” he said.

Sen. Schumer was among the most forceful opponents of Trump’s decision. File photo by Kevin Redding

During Trump’s June 1 speech announcing the withdrawal, he sited a loss of American jobs in the coal industry and crippling regulations on the business world as the drivers behind his decision.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who was appointed by Trump, praised his decision.

“This is a historic restoration of American Economic Independence — one that will benefit the working class, the working poor, and working people of all stripes,” he said. “With this action, you have declared that people are the rulers of this country once again.”

Administrators from the New York District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, a government agency that offers support to small businesses, were not available to comment on Trump’s decision or the formation of the United States Climate Alliance, but a spokesperson for the department instead directed the request to answers U.S. SBA Administrator Linda McMahon gave to Yahoo Global News June 6. She agreed with Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement, adding she believes this will result in more job opportunities for Americans.

“I think [Trump] was making a statement that we’re going to look at what’s good for America first,” she said. “I do think climate change is real, and I do think that man has some contribution to climate change. As to the extent of the science, predictions as to what might happen 20, 30, 40 years from now, I’m not sure we have that totally decided, but I do respect the science behind a lot of it.”