Biden to Spotlight Vets Health in Address to Congress, Pushing Burn Pit, Mental Health Help

U.S. Marine after disposing of trash at a burn pit in Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine walks away after disposing of trash at the burn pit in Forward Operating Base Zeebrudge, Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 6, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz)

The Biden administration is launching a string of new initiatives to help sick or financially struggling veterans, including a push to help combat veterans sickened by burn pits, as part of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday night.

The list includes fast-tracking claims filed by veterans harmed by burn pits, relief for those struggling with medical debt, and improved access to mental health care.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, a senior administration official, speaking on background ahead of the speech, said the president will focus on veterans, presenting "a unity agenda" of policies that both Democrats and Republicans have "historically supported."

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In a fact sheet released ahead of the speech, the White House announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to establish presumption for 10 cancers thought to be caused by airborne chemicals released from burn pits and other sources of pollution in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the past 30 years.

The illnesses would join three already considered to be linked to overseas duty if they developed within 10 years of deployment -- asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis -- and be eligible for health care and expedited benefits.

The presumptive designation allows veterans to apply for disability benefits without having to provide proof that their disease was caused by an exposure or injury when they served in the military.

The rare respiratory cancers that would be eligible for health care and expedited disability claims include: squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx; squamous cell carcinoma of the trachea; adenocarcinoma of the trachea; salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea; adenosquamous carcinoma of the lung; large cell carcinoma of the lung; salivary gland-type tumors of the lung; sarcomatoid carcinoma of the lung; and typical and atypical carcinoid of the lung.

The announcement comes as Congress is considering several bills that would expand the list of burn-pit related conditions to include additional cancers and respiratory illnesses and would expand benefits to nearly a million veterans who served overseas in specified locations since Aug. 2, 1990, when U.S. service members deployed to the Middle East following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

The House is expected to vote this week on a $208 billion proposal, the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, that also would expand VA health care access to more post 9/11 veterans.

The bill also would improve the federal response to veterans sickened as the result of drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, from the 1950s through the 1980s and create several new registries for veterans sickened at domestic installations. The bill once carried a price tag of $280 billion over 10 years but was reassessed this week at $208 billion after several changes were made.

The Senate already has approved a $1 billion bill that would extend VA health care to more veterans, creating a one-year enrollment period for VA medical care for post 9/11 combat veterans who served since 1998 and never enrolled, and expanding the enrollment period from five years to 10.

But the Senate's version does not include a list of health conditions that would be eligible for fast-tracked benefits, nor does it include many of the provisions for veterans affected in earlier conflicts.

That bill's sponsors, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., have said those proposals would be addressed in later pieces of legislation.

On Monday, the White House released a statement saying the administration "strongly supports" the $208 billion House bill, which is sponsored by House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif.

"The administration looks forward to working with the Congress to enact this legislation and ensuring it is effectively implemented. We must address the toxic legacy of environmental exposures sustained by our veterans," the White House statement read.

Biden is expected to discuss mental health care for veterans and a need to improve access to same-day services.

He also will announce plans to help ease the process for some veterans to have their medical debt forgiven. The group RIP Medical Debt estimates that veterans owe at least $1 billion in unpaid medical bills.

According to the fact sheet, VA plans to develop a new online system for veterans to use when applying and will announce new income thresholds for receiving relief.

The official said the administration also aims to educate medical providers on military toxic exposures and roll out a call center for affected veterans so they can connect with doctors, nurses and other providers who specialize in environmental illnesses.

“VA is continuing to hire and is getting ready for full deployment of that center later this year," the official said.

In a Veterans Day speech last year, Biden pledged to help veterans who were injured or sickened as a result of their military service. He referenced, as he frequently does, the service of his son, Beau Biden, a member of the Delaware Army National Guard who deployed to Iraq and died at age 46 of brain cancer in 2015.

The State of the Union is expected to be delivered at 9 p.m. Eastern in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.

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

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