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Tester announces new bill aimed at expanding coverage for veterans exposed to toxic hazards

Burn pits in Iraq
Posted at 1:51 PM, May 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-25 20:30:35-04

Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jon Tester, D-Mont., unveiled sweeping legislation Tuesday morning that is intended to expand benefits and improve care for veterans suffering from toxic exposure.

The Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops (COST) of War Act of 2021 would have the federal government recognize their responsibility to provide health care and disability compensation to veterans fighting the effects of toxic exposure connected to their military service.

“Every conflict seems to have a toxic exposure problem with it,” Tester said. “So it is far past time for Congress to live up to the promises of our fighting men and women who have served this country and we can do that by passing this bill.”

In recent years the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has recognized that nearly 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans suffered prolonged and pervasive exposure to burn pits and other toxic chemicals they could not avoid. Burn pits were how the military disposed of waste — including plastics — and have been linked to cancer, respiratory illnesses and other diseases.

Burn pit
Burn pit

The COST of War Act of 2021 allows those veterans to obtain immediate and lifelong access to health care from VA. It also establishes a new science-based and veteran-focused process for the establishment of new presumptive conditions. It would also provide more benefits to thousands of toxic exposure veterans from the United State’s other conflicts, including Agent Orange veterans suffering from hypertension.

Some of the other provisions of, the COST of War Act of 2021 include:

  • Establish a consistent, transparent framework based on medical and scientific evidence to drive the establishment of new presumptions of service connection between a condition and a toxic exposure;
  • Reduce the burden on toxic exposure veterans claiming a direct service connection without a presumption, by requiring VA to examine a veteran’s military records for proof of toxic exposure and to consider whether other evidence shows such records are wrong or incomplete.
  • Acknowledge that for certain toxic exposure veterans the science supports the creation of new presumptions of service connection, including Agent Orange veterans suffering from hypertension or Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance (MGUS) and Burn Pit veterans suffering from various lung-related conditions or glioblastoma;
  • Focus federal research to support toxic exposure veterans and ensure that the toxic exposure framework is based on sound science;
  • Strengthen VA’s toxic exposure processes from health care to disability benefits, by requiring specialized toxic exposure training for VA health care and disability claims processing personnel; and
  • Guarantee toxic exposures are accurately recorded before veterans seek VA health care and benefits, by requiring an independent study on the Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record.

The new legislation has strong support from veterans groups and advocates including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Military Officers Association of America, The Enlisted Association and the Wounded Warrior Project.

Aleks Morosky with the Wounded Warrior Project said that while many men and women of the armed forces understood the dangers of serving their country in regards to enemy fire and bombs, many often were not aware they could be exposed to toxic hazards they’d have no way of avoiding. Those men and women were also often not aware of the sicknesses that would develop years after that exposure.

“Then in addition to the problems caused by those illnesses, they come to find out it is extremely difficult their claims for service connection granted by VA largely because they either can’t prove the exposure occurred in the first place — which was often never documented — and the VA is unwilling to speculate the illness was caused by the exposure,” said Morosky.

Most of the major bases in Iraq and Afghanistan used burn pits at one point. By 2019, they had been largely phased out but nine United States military locations in the Middle East continued to use them to dispose of waste.

The conflicts in the Middle East also saw the burning of oil fields, a toxic hazard many service members could not escape from.

Burning of Uniforms
Master Sgt. Darryl Sterling, 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron equipment manager, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit, March 10. The 332 ELRS has a central collection point that can be used by service members and Department of Defense civilians; unserviceable uniform items are burned. Sergeant Sterling is deployed from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

Montana veteran Tim Peters is one such service member that is still feeling the effects of such exposure back in 1991. He described landing in Kuwait in the middle of the afternoon and the sky being pitch black from the oil fires burning in the area.

“I was in my twenties and very healthy. As soon as the war was over and we got back home, shortly after that I started suffering ailments and it continues and continues to worsen even today” Peters explained.

Tester says he understands that military commanders have a lot to think about while in theater, but heath and potential future consequences for toxic expose need to be a top concern as well.

A hurdle for the new legislation with be the potential price tag associated with the increased benefits.

Sen. Jon Tester

Tester said if people are willing to back additional funding for active military, there should be no issue with support those that served in the past.

“People want to plus-up the defense budget all the time, and in some cases, it should be plus-up. But if those same people are balkin’ on this because of the cost it’s a little bit two-faced quite frankly,” said Tester.

Tester added debate on the legislation will be beneficial to make sure the legislation is affordable as possible.

The COST of War Act of 2021 will be considered Wednesday during a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee markup.