MJFF Urges US Veterans’ Affairs to Better Fund Disease Care, Research

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by Steve Bryson, PhD |

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The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) encouraged the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to expand healthcare access for veterans exposed to hazardous chemicals, and to better support research into service-connected Parkinson’s disease.

Recently, the committee hosted a roundtable discussion about healthcare costs for veterans exposed to certain substances during their service, such as garbage burn pits, warfare chemicals, jet fuel, and cleaning solvents.

Committee members heard from community activists and advocates, including those with the MJFF, who called for a change in how U.S. veterans with health problems as a result of their service are treated.

“We are a country that purports to love its veterans — we support the troops, we put on our flag pins, we stand, veterans get discounts at Denny’s … but when a veteran is sick and dying due to the service they gave to this country, and they come back and are put under scrutiny … in a case concerning their own health care and lives? It’s unacceptable,” Jon Stewart, a veterans’ activist and television personality, said in an MJFF press release.

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In a letter sent to Veterans’ Affairs committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-California), the MJFF explained that soldiers may experience physical or psychological stress, head trauma, severe brain injury, or be exposed to substances known or suspected to trigger Parkinson’s disease.

Both genetic and environmental factors appear to influence the risk of developing Parkinson’s, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder caused by the loss of nerve cells in the brain involved in the control of body movements, as well as learning, memory, sleep, and mood.

Among environmental triggers, studies suggest traumatic brain injury — with or without the loss of consciousness — can raise the risk of Parkinson’s years after injury. Air pollutants, fine metal particulates, and certain pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides have also been associated with this disease.

In particular, the herbicides Agent Orange and paraquat have gained scientific attention for their associations with Parkinson’s in veterans. In 2009, Veterans’ Affairs added Parkinson’s disease to the list of conditions possibly associated with Agent Orange exposure.

Currently, Veterans Affairs’ runs six Parkinson’s Disease, Research, Education, and Clinical Centers (PADRECCs). Their mission is to provide medical and surgical care to veterans with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders, and to advance research in disease causes and treatments.

These centers, working through a consortium, also provide specialized Parkinson’s and movement disorder care at 53 sites across the country for those who cannot travel to a PADRECC.

The MJFF supported Congress’s approval of language in a relevant fiscal year appropriations bill — the FY22 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies bill. It directs Veterans’ Affairs to significantly increase funding to maintain and expand the PADRECCs, particularly in underserved areas, and expand services to military veterans.

Currently, the annual budget for the six Parkinson’s centers and their 53 consortium sites is $8 million, “equating to an investment of just $67 per year (or a mere 18 cents per day) for each veteran living with [Parkinson’s disease],” the MJFF wrote in its letter.

Funding for the Neurotoxin Exposure Treatment Parkinson’s Research Program (PRP) at the Department of Defense has been capped at $16 million for 10 years, the MJFF also noted. It is asking Congress to increase PRP funding to $25 million to allow for more research into this complex disorder, including possible links to pesticide exposure and traumatic brain injuries.

“This research is applicable to the general population as well,” the Fox Foundation wrote.

Better Veterans’ Affairs research funding would help in developing therapies that could lower overall healthcare costs, the MJFF wrote. It noted that 90% of people with Parkinson’s rely on Medicare for coverage, and up to one-third are also eligible for Medicaid due to their income or disability status. Both these are government health insurance programs.

The MJFF is also asking veterans to enroll in its Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) study (NCT01141023), launched in 2010. The study’s primary goal is to better understand how Parkinson’s develops and progresses by collecting data at every stage of the disease, with healthy individuals serving as controls.