Congress is zeroing in on providing expanded health care for possibly millions of veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic environments. It is considering a vast roster of bills that could usher in a new era in the Department of Veterans Affairs' health care system -- if those bills reach the president's desk.
The debate over health care for victims of toxic exposure amounts to a legislative ultramarathon for advocates and lawmakers championing the issue, amid little mainstream media coverage and what will likely be sticker shock when the final price tag is tallied -- something that could scare away lawmakers and sink ambitious measures.
The Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees are set to hold coordinated hearings on bills related to toxic exposure, the panels announced Tuesday. The Senate committee will have its hearing Wednesday; the House hearing will be held May 5.
The bills have a diverse range of incremental improvements; a few would offer mammoth health care expansions granting benefits to veterans sickened from Agent Orange, radiation and burn pits.
For decades, the military used open-air burn pits to dispose of garbage, paint, plastics, jet fuel and human waste. Now, some veterans are getting sick and dying from what they believe are cancers and other illnesses caused by breathing in the toxic fumes. The VA estimated 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits since 1990, yet 72% of disability claims had been denied as of March 31.
President Joe Biden was expected to be a key ally on the burn pit issue, given he believes his son Beau died from burn pit exposure after his deployment to Iraq. White House staff have taken meetings with key figures, such as comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, on the matter. Yet the president has not mentioned burn pits publicly since taking office. A spokesperson for the White House said, "The administration is closely monitoring the issue."
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said at a press briefing Monday that he is "urging vets to come forward with their claims."
The VA maintains the science is not clear on diseases potentially caused by serving near burning garbage for up to a year at a time, but that assertion has drawn the ire of veteran groups and conflicts with some of the VA's own findings.
A veteran who deployed in support of the Global War on Terrorism is "three times more likely than a similar non-deployed cohort to file claims for respiratory conditions," according to internal VA data obtained by Military.com. GWOT veterans are also "roughly two times more likely than non-deployed cohorts to file claims for cancers."
Between June 2007 and March 31, the VA processed 15,640 disability compensation claims related to burn pit exposure. Of those, 3,510 veterans had at least one burn pit issue granted.
It is unlikely that data paints the whole picture, because some veterans don't connect their conditions to burn pit exposure or are unwilling to navigate the VA's bureaucratic maze. It's unclear how many have been affected by serious health ailments or died from exposure to toxic environments.
The big-ticket legislative items are a set of competing measures aimed to give presumptive care to veterans exposed to burn pits. One is championed by Stewart, the former host of the "Daily Show." Yet the enormous cost of providing presumptive care could be a major hurdle, especially in a year with unprecedented federal spending.
Hypothetically, some bills on the table would allow any veteran who served abroad and is sick from issues such as cancers or chronic bronchitis to automatically be seen as a victim of toxic exposure and treated by the VA.
However, with the current system, it's a massive and often impossible burden for a veteran to prove they served near a burn pit and link their health ailments to that service.
"It is abundantly clear that we need to recognize toxic exposure as a cost of war," Mark Takano, the chair of the House VA committee, said in a statement.
The VA committees hope to repeat 2019's efforts on toxic exposure, when Congress unanimously passed the Blue Water Navy Act , which provided presumptive status for disability benefits to roughly 90,000 Navy veterans who served in the waters off the coast of Vietnam and were exposed to Agent Orange.
"While we were successful in bringing long-overdue relief to Vietnam-era veterans dealing with service-connected illnesses last Congress, we have a lot of urgent work ahead to provide health care and benefits to other veterans suffering from their exposure," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the chair of the Senate VA committee, said in a statement. "These hearings are critical in helping Congress find common ground on toxic exposure issues and craft legislation that'll best serve our nation's veterans."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.