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Senators press Blinken to improve care for Havana Syndrome victims as task force leader departs


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By Katie Bo Lillis and Kylie Atwood, CNN

Some State Department victims of so-called “Havana Syndrome” continue to be denied access to care at Walter Reed National Medical Center, a bipartisan pair of senators said in a letter sent Wednesday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The letter comes amid the departure of the top diplomat overseeing State’s response to the burgeoning number of cases worldwide, and amid ongoing criticism from victims and lawmakers that the department has failed to do enough to protect and care for its workforce, CNN has previously reported.

“We write to convey our ongoing concern regarding access and equity of medical treatment for State Department employees and their family members who have reported symptoms consistent with anomalous health incidents (AHIs),” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, and Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained exclusively by CNN.

“We are particularly concerned that some State Department employees with such symptoms who have been recommended for treatment have been refused access to Walter Reed National Medical Military Care Center by the Department of State, despite their requests to be seen at Walter Reed.”

The lawmakers demanded that Blinken investigate the matter and “ensure State Department employees and their dependents have the same access to care as AHI victims from the Department of Defense.”

Access to Walter Reed has been a key sticking point for victims of the mysterious illness, some of whom suffer from traumatic brain injury — an injury for which Walter Reed has a renowned treatment center.

Amb. Pamela Spratlen, who was pulled out of retirement earlier this year to oversee State’s task force created in response to the incidents, departed after only six months on the job. A State Department official told CNN on Thursday that Spratlen “recently reached the threshold of hours of labor permitted” by the specific government status that she was hired under.

Sources tell CNN that some State Department victims of the illness have complained that Spratlen didn’t directly report to Blinken — suggesting that the department wasn’t prioritizing the issue as highly as it claimed to be. Multiple US officials also told CNN there has been ongoing frustration with Spratlen’s willingness to coordinate at the interagency level.

In any case, Spratlen’s departure leaves State’s task force without a leader, and raises questions about why the department would appoint someone subject to such limited work hours as a task force leader to address a problem that appears likely to be a long-term issue facing the US government. The State official said the department plans to name a replacement “soon.”

History of denial of care

Mark Lenzi, a member of the diplomatic security services and a victim of a series of incidents that took place in 2018 in Guangzhou, China, says that the State Department has denied him care at Walter Reed, despite his persistent symptoms.

“We have noted your request for you and your family to be seen at Walter Reed. At this time, Walter Reed is only able to accept patients who have recently reported UHIs,” the State Department’s medical services department wrote Lenzi in an August email viewed by CNN. “That being said, we are currently working with Walter Reed and the DOD on a process for patients who reported UHIs in the past to also be seen at Walter Reed and/or another similar center.”

Shaheen and Collins in their letter also demanded “a written explanation that details the situations in which qualifying victims are granted or denied assessment and treatment at Walter Reed, the factors that go into such a decision, and by whom such a decision is made and approved.”

The House on Tuesday passed legislation that widens access to medical care for victims of Havana Syndrome, including authorizing the CIA director and the secretary of state to financially compensate victims suffering from brain injuries and requiring them to create rules for “fair and equitable” treatment. The legislation was previously passed by the Senate and now heads to the {resident’s desk.

Lawmakers, including Shaheen and Collins, have also secured $30 million in funding for victims to access Walter Reed in annual defense legislation that has not yet been finalized.

Still a mystery

US intelligence officials still haven’t formally determined who or what is causing “Havana Syndrome,” a strange constellation of symptoms reported by spies, diplomats and service-members around the globe. Some US officials believe at least some of the incidents to be attacks by Russian military intelligence, perhaps using some kind of directed energy device, but the intelligence community is still actively investigating and some officials believe there may be multiple culprits.

The episodes have left some former officials ill enough that they were forced to retire.

“In terms of have we gotten closer, I think the answer is yes — but not close enough to make analytic judgment that people are waiting for,” CIA Deputy Director David Cohen said at a national security conference in Washington last week.

CNN has previously reported that suspected incidents have also taken place on US soil, including two staff members of then-President Donald Trump’s national security council who were struck near entrance points to the White House.

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