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Lawmakers to launch sweeping legislation for veterans suffering from toxic exposure

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 24, 2021

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers will unveil sweeping bills this week that aim to create a fast track to Department of Veterans Affairs benefits for nearly all veterans who served overseas since 1990 and developed a respiratory illness or cancer.

Many veterans who served overseas throughout the 1990s and the post-9/11 wars have since been diagnosed with cancers, respiratory issues and lung diseases at young ages and have blamed exposure to toxic fumes from open-air burn pits. They have sought VA benefits and health care, but the department has contended that there isn’t sufficient evidence to support their claims.

A contingent of lawmakers is pushing to expand the number of veterans who are eligible for presumptive benefits and health care, as well as initiate a major reform of how the VA handles claims of military toxic exposure. They’re hoping to take advantage of what they’re calling a “historic opportunity” to make comprehensive change.

The House will unveil its bill Wednesday at a gathering outside of the Capitol building. Comedian Jon Stewart is expected to speak at the event. Stewart became a fierce advocate for 9/11 responders who developed illnesses from the toxic fumes at the destroyed World Trade Center, and he recently turned his attention to veterans suffering from diseases caused by exposure to burn pits and other toxic environments since the Gulf War.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, is leading the bill, called the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021. No details about the bill had been released as of Monday.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is leading the Senate’s version, the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops of War Act of 2021. Tester will officially unveil the bill during a phone call Tuesday morning.

In a release Monday, Tester’s office said the bill would expand eligibility to VA health care for all veterans who were at risk of toxic exposure during their military service, including 3.5 million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an early draft of the Senate bill obtained by Stars and Stripes, nearly all veterans who served in overseas conflicts for the past 31 years and developed one of a host of diseases would get presumptive status for VA benefits, including disability compensation. Being on the presumptive list creates a fast track to compensation by lowering the amount of proof veterans must provide to receive benefits.

The draft bill sought to add nine lung conditions and two types of cancer to the list of illnesses that would qualify veterans for benefits. The draft also outlined a major reform to how the VA handles claims of toxic exposure, including the creation of a Toxic Exposure Review Commission that would advise the VA secretary.

Lawmakers are also seeking to provide presumptive benefits for older eras of veterans still fighting to prove their illnesses were caused by toxic exposure. They’re hoping to secure benefits for Vietnam War veterans who have developed hypertension because of exposure to chemical herbicides, as well as veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Guam or American Samoa during certain periods of the 1960s and 1970s and were potentially exposed to herbicides.

There’s also an effort underway to help “atomic” veterans who participated in the military cleanup operation of radioactive sites in the Pacific Ocean in the 1970s.

The cost of the legislation remained uncertain Monday, and it was unsure whether the effort has the support of President Joe Biden’s administration.

During recent hearings about the issue of toxic exposure, the VA has asked lawmakers to hold off making major changes until the department finishes an internal review later this year. New VA Secretary Denis McDonough initiated the review of the claims process for toxic exposure. At the end of its review, the VA hopes to have a “new and decisive” approach to toxic exposure claims, said Ronald Burke, deputy undersecretary for policy and oversight.

“The VA is creating a new, comprehensive, modernized decision-making model for determining presumptives based on environmental exposures,” Burke said. “We are moving with a sense of urgency.”

However, lawmakers plan to move ahead. They have said they want the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees to review the bills ahead of Memorial Day on May 31.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling