Porterville Recorder

Veterans burn pit care facing obstacles


Thousands of military veterans who are sick after being exposed to toxic smoke and dust while on duty are facing a Senate roadblock to ambitious legislatio­n designed to provide them care.

The Senate could start work as soon as this week on a bipartisan bill, called the Honoring Our PACT Act, that passed the House of Representa­tives in March. It would make it much easier for veterans to get health care and benefits from the Veterans Health Administra­tion if they get sick because of the air they breathed around massive, open-air incinerati­on pits. The military used those pits in war zones around the globe — sometimes the size of football fields — to burn anything from human and medical waste to plastics and munitions, setting it alight with jet fuel.

As it stands now, more than three-quarters of all veterans who submit claims for cancer, breathing disorders, and other illnesses they believe are caused by inhaling poisonous burn pit smoke have their claims denied, according to estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs and service organizati­ons.

The reason so few are approved is the military and VA require injured war fighters to prove an illness is directly connected to their service — something that’s extremely difficult when it comes to toxic exposures. The House’s PACT Act would make that easier by declaring any of the 3.5 million veterans who served in the global war on terror — including operations in Afghanista­n, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf — would be presumed eligible for benefits if they come down with any of 23 ailments linked to the burn pits.

Although 34 Republican­s voted with Democrats to pass the bill in the House, only one Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, has signaled support for the measure. At least 10 GOP members would have to join all Democrats to avoid the threat of a filibuster in the Senate and allow the bill to advance to President Joe Biden’s desk. Biden called on Congress to pass such legislatio­n in his State of the Union address, citing the death of his son Beau Biden, who served in Iraq in 2008 and died in 2015 of glioblasto­ma, a brain cancer included on the bill’s list of qualifying conditions.

Senate Republican­s are raising concerns about the measure, however, suggesting it won’t be paid for, it’s too big, too ambitious, and could end up promising more than the government can deliver.

The Congressio­nal Budget Office estimates the bill would cost more than $300 billion over 10 years, and the VA already has struggled for years to meet surging demand from troops serving deployment­s since the 2001 terror attacks on America, with a backlog of delayed claims running into the hundreds of thousands. Besides addressing burn pits, the bill would expand benefits for veterans who served at certain nuclear sites, and cover more conditions related to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, among several other issues.

While the bill phases in coverage for new groups of beneficiar­ies over 10 years, some Republican­s involved in writing legislatio­n about burn pits fear it’s all too much.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, summed up the concern as stemming from promising lots of assistance “that might look really good,” but the bottom line is those “who really need the care would never get into a VA facility.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another member of the panel, agreed. “What we’re concerned with is that you’ve got a backlog of 222,000 cases now, and if you implement, by legislativ­e fiat, the 23 presumptio­ns, we’re gonna go to a million and a half to two and a half million backlog,” he said. Tillis has advanced his own burn pits bill that would leave it to the military and VA to determine which illnesses automatica­lly were presumed to be service-connected. That tally is likely to cover fewer people. “So the question we have is, while making a new promise, are we going to be breaking a promise for all those veterans that need care today?”

Republican­s have insisted they want to do something to help veterans who are increasing­ly getting sick with illnesses that appear related to toxic exposure. About 300,000 veterans have signed up with the VA’S burn pits registry.

Sen. Jerry Moran from Kansas, the top Republican on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, held a press conference in February with Sen. Jon Tester (D-mont.), the committee chairman, advocating a more gradual process to expand access to benefits and define the illnesses that would qualify.

The event was designed to show what would easily gain bipartisan support in the Senate while the House was still working on its bill.

Veterans’ service organizati­ons, which try to avoid taking partisan positions, have praised such efforts. But they’ve also made clear they like the House bill. More than 40 of the groups endorsed the PACT Act before it passed the lower chamber.

Aleks Morosky, a government­al affairs specialist for the Wounded Warrior Project, plans to meet with senators this month in hope of advancing the PACT Act.

“This is an urgent issue. I mean, people are dying,” Morosky said.

He added he believes some minor changes and input from the VA would eliminate the sorts of problems senators are raising.

“This bill was meticulous­ly put together, and these are the provisions that veterans need,” Morosky said. “The VA is telling us that they can implement it the way they’ve implemente­d large numbers of people coming into the system in the past.”

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