Vets with Burn Pit and Toxic Exposure Illnesses to Get Better Disability Help, White House Pledges

A soldier watches over the civilian fire fighters at the burn pit as smoke and flames rise into the night sky behind him at Camp Fallujah, Iraq on May 25th, 2007. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Samuel D. Corum)
A soldier watches over the civilian fire fighters at the burn pit as smoke and flames rise into the night sky behind him at Camp Fallujah, Iraq on May 25th, 2007. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Samuel D. Corum)

The Biden administration is moving to improve the disability claims process for veterans with illnesses linked to toxic exposure, such as respiratory disease and lung cancer, and make it easier for them to connect with specialists who can treat them.

On Thursday, the White House and Department of Veterans Affairs announced several new initiatives for service members and vets affected by burn pits, industrial waste and other sources of toxic chemicals used in combat environments.

Senior administration officials said Wednesday that the issue is "personal" for President Joe Biden.

Biden has said that the brain cancer that killed his son, former Army National Guard Maj. Beau Biden, may have been caused by burn pits -- the open-air sites used to burn military waste in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

"We have the sacred obligation to care for our women and men in uniform, especially when they come home with the wounds of war. Exposure to environmental hazards and other contaminants pose major health concerns for veterans of all generations," a senior White House staff member told reporters in a call the day before Veterans Day.

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The officials asked that they not be identified so they could freely discuss the efforts prior to a formal announcement Thursday.

Veterans with injuries and illnesses connected to their military service are eligible for medical care and disability compensation from the VA.

But unless they have a condition that the VA has listed as officially linked, they must provide documents to support their claim that their illness is tied to serving in the military -- claims that are then compared with recommendations by a national advisory board based on existing, often scant, research.

For many service members, such as Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Wesley Black, the changes come too late. Black, 36, died Sunday of colon cancer that his physicians said was related to exposure to burn pits -- cancer that was misdiagnosed at the VA as irritable bowel syndrome.

Black became an advocate for burn pit victims, working to get legislation passed in his state to raise awareness of the issue. He reached a $3 million settlement with the VA last summer, according to the West Lebanon Valley News.

"He used the tragic hand he was dealt as a platform from which to raise awareness about the harmful effects of burn pit exposure," wrote Dan Perrone, one of Black's attorneys, to the newspaper. "His heroics and advocacy have and undoubtedly will continue to save lives."

As part of the new efforts, the VA may add new conditions to existing lists of service-related illnesses "when the evidence is strong" and also plans to reduce the burden of proof by not only comparing claims with findings by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, but also with VA research and evidence of prevalence of illnesses among VA patients and veterans receiving disability compensation.

"This is a radically different approach," a senior official said on the call with reporters. "Right now, the current process to evaluate an association for military environmental hazard is based primarily on the [National Academies]. What we are doing is saying that moving forward, we are broadening the aperture."

VA officials said they used the new method to designate asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis as illnesses caused by burn pit and air pollution exposure and therefore eligible for disability pay and health care -- a move it made in August.

According to the VA, the department is particularly interested in using the new process for claims for constrictive bronchiolitis, lung cancers and rare respiratory cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx or trachea and salivary gland-type tumors.

The VA also will launch a public awareness campaign, calling attention to a new hotline for veterans and physicians to learn more about military environmental exposures.

VET-HOME, the Veterans Exposure Team-Health Outcomes of Military Exposures line, to be introduced at some point in 2022, will provide information to veterans on the VA's Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry and the claims process.

It also will provide referrals to medical specialists who are experts on pollution-related diseases and serve as a resource for affected veterans' medical providers.

The administration also plans to accelerate the timeline for rolling out a system for tracking service members' exposures throughout their military careers, known as the Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record, currently slated to start in 2023, although officials did not provide a time frame.

And the administration will ask Congress to extend the period of eligibility for health care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from five years after military discharge to 10 years.

The officials noted that many environmental illnesses take years to develop.

More than 240,000 former service members have joined the VA's burn pit registry.

Prior to the announcement on the new presumptive diseases related to burn pits, 49% of veterans' claims for asthma, 55% of claims for sinusitis and 29% of those for rhinitis were rejected, according to the VA.

Nearly 70% of claims for environmental cancers filed by 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans also have been rejected.

Visiting Arlington National Cemetery with several veterans on Thursday, Biden pledged to take care of veterans after their service.

"Our administration is going to meet the sacred obligations that we owe you. ... That means expanding presumptive conditions for toxic exposure and particulate matter, including burn pits and Agent Orange. We're going to keep pushing to be more nimble and responsive," he said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: Veterans Legal Group to Offer Assistance Filing Burn Pit-Related Disability Claims

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