House Passes Bill to Expand Health Benefits of Burn Pit Exposure

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday passed a bill that would make millions of veterans exposed to garbage pits on U.S. military bases around the world eligible for medical care, the federal government’s most sweeping move to recognize that the sites may have caused a range of illnesses.

The legislation would effectively assume that any US service member stationed in a combat zone for the past 32 years could have been exposed to toxic substances, authorizing a forecast of $285 billion over the next decade to treat related ailments. to these exposures and to rationalize veterans’ access to such care.

It would be one of the biggest expansions of veterans’ benefits in the history of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Denis McDonough, secretary of the agency, on par with the Agent Orange law which has expanded access to Vietnam War veterans exposed to the toxic substance that has been used as an herbicide and endangered generations of Laotians.

The House passed the measure 342 to 88, sending it to the Senate, which had to quickly approve it and send it to President Biden for his signature.

Mr Biden has long advocated for expanded care, speculating toxic substances from the fireplaces contributed to the brain cancer that killed his son Beau, who served in Iraq, in 2015.

Open-air burning pits were standard on U.S. military bases in Afghanistan beginning in 2001, as well as bases established later in Iraq. They were frequently used to dispose of any unnecessary items and were ignited by jet fuel as bases lacked infrastructure for proper disposal and existing sanitation services had been destroyed by the fighting.

Toxic exposure to these waste fires overseas, as well as contaminated drinking water on bases in the United States, has resulted in a number of respiratory conditions and illnesses such as bronchial asthma, allergic rhinitis, sleep apnea, bronchitis and sinusitis, as well as different types of cancer.

According to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, about 3.5 million veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances since the September 11 attacks could have their eligibility for health care expanded under the legislation.

The bill would change the definition of what constitutes “toxic exposure” for the purposes of determining veterans’ eligibility for medical and nursing home care, as well as mental health services. This would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize dozens of cancers and respiratory illnesses that could be linked to toxic exposure. And he would direct the department to include such exposures in patient questionnaires in order to reach patients who are unaware that their conditions might be related to combustion fireplaces.

“We have an opportunity to deliver on the promise we made to our service members when our country sent them into harm’s way: that we would take care of them and pay for that care when they return home,” said Rep. Mark Takano, Democrat. of California and Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Mr Biden announced in his State of the Union address this year a policy that would give veterans with certain respiratory cancers – such as squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx and trachea, as well as different types of cancers of the lung – a lower burden of proof to have these conditions treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system.

In 2020, Laurine Carson, deputy executive director of the department, told the committee that 12,582 veterans had claimed conditions related to exposure to burn pits from June 2007 to July 2020, but only 2,828 claims had been granted. .

A department spokesperson was unable to provide updated data immediately on Wednesday. But there has been a wave of pressure from veterans groups to change the law governing eligibility to make it easier to get care, an effort that has gained traction at the White House. , with Mr. Biden’s interest in the matter, and on The US Parliament.

The Supreme Court has also taken up the matter. In June, it ruled 5-4 in favor of an Army reservist who sued Texas for refusing to allow him to return to work as a state trooper due to a medical condition. which he says resulted from toxic exposure while serving overseas. .

Opponents of the legislation objected to its cost, complaining that without cuts to other programs to compensate, expanding veterans’ health benefits would swell the deficit.

“You have to pay for what we spend,” said Rep. Chip Roy, Republican of Texas. “We are undermining the sacrifice of the very veterans we say we are helping with this measure by not doing it” in a “fiscally responsible” manner, he said.

Senators concerned about the price have struck a deal to spread the benefits over a series of years, meaning that in most cases those who served earliest would be eligible for care in 2024, but those who were more recently released would have to wait several years – and in some cases, a decade.

But Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois, the top Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee, said much of the bill’s cost was already being funded under current law.

“The bill isn’t perfect, but extending health care and benefits to veterans who are exposed to burns or other dangerous toxins while serving our country is the right thing to do” , added Mr. Bost.

Mr McDonough said the measure would help achieve the department’s goal of getting more care for veterans. He said the agency “would work to ensure that expanding health care eligibility does not result in a delay or disruption of care for veterans who are already receiving VA health care. “

Tom Porter, executive vice president of U.S. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, called the bill “a huge step to prove that we fully support our service members and veterans.”