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A burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2008.
A burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2008. (Michael Gisick/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Michigan Reps. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat, and Peter Meijer, a Republican, introduced a bill Thursday that removes a key barrier to health benefits for veterans exposed to toxic fumes while serving overseas.

It is the seventh piece of legislation introduced in Congress in recent weeks designed to help veterans who were exposed to fumes from burn pits while serving on military installations.

On both sides of the political aisle, lawmakers in Washington are ramping up efforts to expand care for veterans who became sick after breathing the toxic fumes. And the litany of bills illustrate the growing appetite in Congress to address the issue, especially with President Joe Biden believing his son died from toxic exposure.

“We have a unique opportunity before us. There has never been this much momentum before. There has never been this much legislation before,” said Shane Liermann, the deputy national legislative director for benefits for the advocacy group Disabled American Veterans.

Lawmakers, veterans and advocates contend the high level of attention is significant and makes a proposal on the issue more likely to pass a vote. The measures are described as complementary to each other that all tackle different parts of the problem.

The U.S. 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.

The bill introduced by Slotkin and Meijer would formally recognize veterans who served near burn pits on overseas deployments were exposed to airborne hazards and other toxins, easing the veterans’ burden of proof. Dubbed a “concession of exposure” bill, it would concede veterans’ exposure during deployed services.

“As someone who lived close to a burn pit in each of my three tours in Iraq, I know this is an important first step in cutting through red tape and getting veterans care for the conditions caused by toxic exposure,” said Slotkin, who served as a CIA analyst.

The Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act is a companion bill to that measure, which was reintroduced in February by Sens. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

These bills aren’t the first efforts to help veterans exposed to toxic environments. Some lawmakers have pushed other legislation that gives care and compensation to veterans, though those efforts have stalled up to now.

But some advocates said they believe having high-profile figures, such as Biden, pushing the issue has kept the conversation on toxic exposure alive. Comedian Jon Stewart has also brought attention to the issue by standing alongside advocacy groups and lawmakers to launch a campaign last year that helped raise awareness. For years, Stewart led outreach efforts to attain benefits for first responders in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Biden has said he believes toxic smoke is the cause of the 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.

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.

Veterans affected by burn pits have faced 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 to prove 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.

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.

The new proposal from Slotkin and Meijer streamlines the VA’s disability claims process by conceding exposure to burn pits for certain locations. It’s in line with the concession of exposure that veterans have been granted for Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide used by the U.S. military in Vietnam that is linked to causing cancer, among other illnesses.

The bill would also require the VA conduct a medical examination if the department doesn’t have enough evidence to grant service connection, which is necessary to get a claim approved.

Though the bill does not automatically grant benefits or health care to veterans who served near a burn pit, it does provide “something you can do now,” Liermann said.

“While everybody’s waiting on science or trying to agree with what diseases should be added as presumptives, here is something you can implement right now, to help veterans get benefits right now,” he said.

Two other bills introduced in the last couple of weeks do focus on presumptives, or illnesses listed by the VA as presumed conditions of toxic exposure for which a veteran could receive disability compensation. Both bills include a lengthy list of health conditions associated with exposure that lawmakers want the VA to add to its list.

One measure from Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., called the “Conceding Our Veterans’ Exposures Now and Necessitating Training Act” would ease the burden of proof for veterans.

Under the proposal, veterans would have to prove they suffer from a qualifying health condition on an expansive list of illnesses diagnosed after service, such as asthma and several types of cancer. Veterans would also have to prove they deployed to a country from a list of nations.

Luria’s bill includes two health conditions that are not listed in similar legislation reintroduced the prior week from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. 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.

While Luria’s bill has a slightly larger number of covered illnesses, it does not allow for new conditions to be covered later. The Gillibrand-Rubio bill does allow additional health ailments to be added later due to the growing body of research that shows new illness could be tied to toxic exposure, potentially making it more costly.

A House version of the Gillibrand-Rubio bill was introduced this week by Reps. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.

In an interview last week, Luria, who is the chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee subpanel that will eventually consider all of the proposals, said she wants to bring the proposals together after reviewing them.

“Our plan is to consider all of these pieces of legislation and the various parts of them related to toxic exposure … I think that it’s a good sign that so many people are introducing legislation to approach this problem,” she said.

The 20-year Navy veteran said there’s a “sense of urgency” in Congress to get something passed soon.

Another bill in the mix is the Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act, or TEAM Act, which has been reintroduced in the House and Senate already.

It would provide health care eligibility for any veteran who was exposed to toxic substances, regardless of whether they’re able to establish service connection or not.

On the basis that they were exposed, they can enroll in VA health care and remain enrolled. The qualification to be enrolled in VA health care is normally that you must have a service-connected disability.

Aleks Morosky, a government affairs specialist for the advocacy group Wounded Warrior Project, said he sees the large number of bills that attempt to address toxic exposure as “pieces of the puzzle” that could pass as a package because they all target different aspects of the issue. If the “best” parts of each bill come together, it will take less time to get them through Congress.

“When it’s a big issue, there’s going to be a lot of members of Congress who are interested in the issue and wanting to introduce bills… [which] shows that it’s a high priority,” he said.

Liermann agreed competing bills do not undermine the overall effort.

But he said the “concession of exposure” bill is a top priority because it will take time to agree on a list of presumptive illnesses. Then, veterans must be ensured of health care, aided by the TEAM Act, and the bills that add presumptive diseases could come last.

However, “eventually, we’re going to need all of them together,” Liermann said.Cammarata.Sarah@stripes.com Twitter: @sarahjcamm

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