‘Ambitious’ toxic exposure bill to be debated Wednesday by Senate VA committee

In a 2008 photo, Senior Airman Frances Gavalis, 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron equipment manager, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit in Iraq.


By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 4, 2020

AUSTIN, Texas – Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., has introduced ambitious legislation that would expand access to preventive health care and diagnostic services to veterans exposed to toxins while also creating training materials for providers and authorizing research on toxic exposure.

The Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act of 2020, or TEAM Act, fundamentally reforms and improves how veterans exposed to toxic substances receive health care and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Tillis said he has watched as veterans have spent decades pushing for documentation of exposure and fair treatment within the system.

“After working alongside veterans who were stationed Camp Lejeune and fighting for service members exposed to toxicants from burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s clear the men and women who served our country deserve better. The bipartisan TEAM Act ensures that all veterans are given a fair and uniform process to receive the health care and benefits to which they are entitled following exposure to toxicants during their service,” Tillis said in a prepared statement.

Rosie Torres, executive director of Burn Pits 360, a nonprofit dedicated to toxic exposure among mainly post-9/11 veterans, said data that she received from the VA shows it denied 10,588 burn pit claims and approved 2,360 from June 2007 through February 2019.

Burn pits have been used to dispose of trash at military bases. In Iraq and Afghanistan, service members often lived near and breathed in the toxic fumes that wafted from the pits as trash that included human and medical waste, computers and jet engines, burned continuously. The toxins released from the pits have been linked to cancers and other chronic conditions.

“We must take action to chip away at the complex web of barriers, erected by entrenched political and bureaucratic interests, which deprive a class of injured veterans of health care and benefits,” Torres said.

Tillis said he wrote the legislation in close coordination with a coalition of 30 veteran service organizations and subject-matter experts, including Burn Pits 360. For two years, a group known as the Toxic Exposure in the American Military Coalition has focused on coming together to see how the challenges faced by generations of veterans seeking help for varying types of toxic exposure can be addressed through Congress. This bill is one of the first major outcomes of the coalition.

The TEAM Act, which is expected to go before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday, improves access to health care by providing consultation and testing through the VA for eligible veterans exposed to toxic substances, expanding training on toxic exposure issues for VA health care and benefits personnel, and by requiring VA to develop a questionnaire for primary care appointments to help determine whether a veteran might have been exposed to toxic substances during service.

It also requires VA to respond to new scientific evidence regarding diseases associated with toxic exposure within an established time, establishes a scientific commission to research the health effects of toxic exposure in veterans and report the commission’s findings to VA and Congress, and ensures VA enters into agreements with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct scientific studies regarding associations between diseases and exposure to toxic substances during military service.

“It’s really ambitious and I’m really excited to see it’s going to get a vote so quickly in committee,” said Tom Porter, executive vice president of government affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA. The group is also a member of the TEAM coalition. “We like the whole bill, but the big thing is the health care. That is aimed at the millions of veterans that aren’t within the VA and aren’t getting their health care through the VA.”

Estimates show that only about 25% of all post-9/11 veterans choose or are eligible for VA health care, said Chelsey Poisson, a clinical nurse researcher with the HunterSeven Foundation, another TEAM coalition member.

“I do think it has a really good chance in helping these key populations,” Poisson said.

To allow veterans to better understand their own exposure risks, the TEAM Act calls for the development of an online portal so veterans can access their Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record – something veterans can only access now through a Freedom of Information Act request, Porter said.

Torres said she would like to see Congress go further than the TEAM Act with approved presumption of disability benefits for certain exposures and she is working with other lawmakers to get legislation introduced in September. Burn Pits 360 is also planning a conference for later this month to highlight how to move forward and educate and activate support for military toxic exposures, she said.

“Veterans and service members are sick and dying. According to the Burn Pits 360 registry, we know there are veterans struggling with illnesses who live in every state and congressional district nationwide,” Torres said. “This conference is a form of hope for so many left fighting the system of delay and deny. It is our hope that through this conference we can reach those that continue to be ignored by Washington.”

Twitter: @Rose_Lori