Navy vet pushes House bill that would expand care for veterans exposed to toxic fumes
By SARAH CAMMARATA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 1, 2021
WASHINGTON — Rep. Elaine Luria, a 20-year Navy veteran, introduced legislation Thursday that would expand care and disability compensation for veterans made sick after breathing in toxic fumes on overseas deployments.
The Conceding Our Veterans’ Exposures Now and Necessitating Training Act would ease the burden of proof for veterans who got sick by exposure to burn pits and other toxic exposures.
“The burden of proof shouldn’t be on our veterans to get the benefits they deserve, and there’s no reason that they and their survivors should have to fight VA for the care and benefits they earned," said Luria, D-Va., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Thousands of veterans have sought care from the Department of Veterans Affairs for illnesses that they believe were caused by serving overseas near burn pits, such as cancers, respiratory issues and lung diseases. However, the VA has said there is insufficient evidence to back-up the claims.
The military used open-air pits during the 1990s and the post-9/11 wars to dispose of waste such as jet fuel, paint and plastics in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other countries. The smoke and emissions from the burn pits contained chemicals that can cause a number of health problems.
Veterans affected by burn pits now face hurdles to receiving care. Sick service members must provide evidence that their illness is linked to toxic exposure, as well as proof that they have been exposed at a certain location.
Advocates have said this is a challenge and sometimes impossible because it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact location of overseas service and the fact that there was a burn pit at that location. The VA also does not have clear guidance on who qualifies for compensation tied to toxic exposure.
Lawmakers have tried to pass legislation that gives care and compensation to veterans exposed to toxic environments, but efforts have stalled up to now. President Joe Biden has said he believes toxic smoke is the cause of brain cancer that killed his son Beau in 2015. Beau Biden was a major in the Delaware Army National Guard and was exposed to burn pits during a deployment to Iraq.
The VA estimates about 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to toxic piles of trash in Iraq, Afghanistan and other military sites, according to a 2015 report. However, a department official said last year that it denied 78 percent of claims to gain access to benefits.
Under Luria’s proposal, veterans would have to prove that they suffer from a qualifying health condition on an expansive list of illnesses such as asthma diagnosed after service and several types of cancer. Veterans would also have to prove that they deployed to a country on a list of 17 nations overseas since Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, and since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Luria’s bill includes two conditions -- rhinitis (chronic stuffiness) and sinusitis (a sinus infection) -- that are not listed in recent legislation reintroduced last week by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to address the issue. Under the Senate proposal, veterans would have to prove they received a campaign medal associated with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War.
Luria’s bill includes a specific list of overseas locations where veterans could have served including Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Uzbekistan, the Philippines, or another country “determined relevant” by the VA secretary.
“We cannot allow our veterans to face the same hardship as the veterans of past battles, who were exposed to toxins but waited decades for the research to catch up. They need to be compensated now for their sacrifice to our country,” Luria said.
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 with the VA.
During a Senate hearing this month, Democrat and Republican lawmakers said there needed to be a streamlined process to add conditions without the need for congressional action.
Luria’s legislation comes in the wake of two bipartisan efforts to reform how the VA treats veterans with toxic exposure, including the Gillibrand-Rubio bill. A House version of the Senate bill is expected to be released on April 13 by Reps. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.
Last week, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., introduced the Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act that would also expand health care to veterans exposed to toxins.