Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., set his sights Wednesday to deliver a sweeping legislative package to tackle a wide swath of health care issues impacting a half century worth of veterans sickened by toxic exposure -- an ambitious target that could significantly bolster services at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"There are a number of bills out there. We need to put those bills together and we will, in a comprehensive package that I hope to mark up in this committee before Memorial Day," Tester, the chair of the Senate VA committee, said at a hearing Wednesday. "If we're able to do that, I believe that gets us time to get something done this year."
The Senate and House VA committees are holding coordinated hearings on two dozen bills related to toxic exposure. The Senate had its hearing Wednesday; the House is set for May 5.
The bills offer a range of incremental improvements; a few would offer mammoth health care expansions granting benefits to veterans sickened from Agent Orange, radiation and burn pits.
A key issue among the bills that could end up in a legislative package relates to granting presumptive care to veterans sickened by burn pit exposure.
Those measures are likely to come with a hefty price tag and give lawmakers sticker shock. It's unclear what an omnibus bill would end up looking like, but lawmakers and advocates are increasingly irritated at veterans being denied benefits at the VA. However, given recent unprecedented federal spending and other big ticket items the Biden administration is pursuing, it's unclear if that could impact the VA committees' efforts.
The VA has estimated that 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits since 1990, and a massive bill granting all of them some level of care or disability would certainly be one of the most ambitious health care moves on Capitol Hill in years.
It's unclear how many veterans are sick from burn pits or have died from related illnesses. VA data shows 72% of the 15,640 burn pit-related claims since 2007 were denied. However, the data is murky at best. The agency largely got that data from a word search for phrases like "burn pits" in its patient database. That means if a veteran's medical record never specifically referenced burn pits, it's unlikely to be represented in the data.
Meanwhile, out of the 2.5 million Global War on Terrorism veterans, 781,384 have filed claims related to respiratory issues. According to VA data obtained by Military.com, 63% were granted. Of all the GWOT veterans, 42,686 filed for claims related to cancer; 37% of those claims were granted.
The VA's research shows GWOT veterans are three times more likely than non-deployed veterans to file claims related to respiratory issues and twice as likely to file claims for cancer.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.