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Lawmakers reintroduce bill, plan a push for veterans exposed to burn pits

An equipment manager with the 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit in Iraq in 2008.

U.S. AIR FORCE

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 26, 2021

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers reintroduced legislation Friday to streamline the process for veterans to get benefits because of illnesses from burn pits and other toxic exposures.

The legislation would lessen the proof required for veterans to receive benefits. Currently, veterans must provide proof of their medical conditions and evidence of their locations at specific burn pits or points where the exposure occurred. Then, they must undergo a medical exam and start a disability compensation claim, which can take years.

Under the new bill, veterans would need to prove only that they deployed to parts of the Middle East, southwest Asia and Africa since 1990 and suffer from a condition associated with toxic exposure.

Throughout the 1990s and the post-9/11 wars, the military used open-air pits to burn garbage, jet fuel, paint, medical waste and plastics. Veterans diagnosed with cancers, respiratory issues and lung diseases at young ages have blamed exposure to the toxic fumes. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs has contended that there is not sufficient evidence to support those claims.

“More than three million service members could have been exposed to toxic burn pits, yet the VA continues to deny them care by placing the burden of proof on veterans suffering from rare cancers, lung diseases and respiratory illnesses,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in a statement Friday. “The bottom line is that our veterans served our country, they are sick and they need health care — period.”

Gillibrand and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., reintroduced the bill in the Senate, and Reps. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., are leading the House version.

The lawmakers are planning a rally outside the U.S. Capitol on April 13 with veterans service organizations, other advocates and comedian Jon Stewart, who has recently fought for veterans suffering the effects of burn pit exposure.

“This legislation includes presumption and actually fixes this urgent and immoral issue,” Stewart said in a statement Friday. “Anything else just delays and denies the treatment and benefits our warriors need.”

For years, lawmakers and veterans advocates have expressed frustration at the VA’s cumbersome process for adding illnesses to a list of conditions presumed to be caused by toxic exposure.

Congress recently passed legislation adding three conditions to the list that stem from exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Congress took action after numerous scientific studies and years of deliberations by the VA.

During a Senate hearing this month, Republicans and Democrats said there needed to be a streamlined process to add conditions without the need for congressional action.

“We need to establish a fair, transparent, sustainable process going forward,” Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said at the hearing. “The need for reform has existed far too long. Veterans can’t be forced to wait decades for care any longer.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling