Although a few details need finalizing, the United States Congress is on track to approve a sweeping bill expanding health care and benefits for US service members exposed to burn pits overseas. While serving in certain operations, Veterans’ exposure to harmful smoke from burn pits has led to a myriad of diseases, including at least twenty-three cancers and respiratory illnesses.
The legislation, having been pushed for years, could see over 3.5 million Veterans receive benefit changes due to toxic burn pit exposure under the scope of the Congressional bill. These service members may be eligible for presumptive benefits status, allowing Veterans who apply for disability benefits to forgo certain medical exams and extensive paperwork to prove their ill-health connects directly to the consequences of burn pits.
Health Conditions Resulting in VA Compensation
This situation is not unlike the 50,000 Blue Water Navy Veterans whose exposure to agent orange off the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia caused many adverse health conditions. These Veterans and their advocates had to petition the courts so that the VA made eligible Veterans’ disability compensation changes to those service members who, though on the water, were still exposed to the land-based chemical defoliant agent orange.
Burn pits became a common manner of disposal in the Southwest Asia theater of operations, including Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other local countries, from August 1990 to the present. Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria, and Uzbekistan became additions from Sept 19, 2001, until today. It became routine to burn plastics, paints, solvents, fuels, human waste, and more throughout these military operation locations.
New Data to Link Air Quality to Chemical Exposure
Past practices in overseas combat areas did not routinely include monitoring air quality and chemical exposure of troops. This lack of data directly linking air quality to subsequent health issues proved difficult for Veterans seeking benefits. However, an official VA internal review finds that “there was sufficient evidence to presume that Veterans have been exposed to particulate matter” during service in these locations. VA Secretary Denis McDonough sees the move as the right decision to recognize the sacrifice of Veterans to the unseeable enemy of toxic particles.
Although the bill in Congress currently has bipartisan support, continuing negotiations for amendments may stall the final vote on the package because of additional floor debate. The two amendments that may slow the approval process include addressing community care programs and reclassifying the type of spending from mandatory to discretionary. While Congress works on the details, many Veterans have little time to waste receiving additional help.
Tracking Exposure in the Registry is Critical
Of the 3.5 million Veterans who may participate in the department’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, enrollment is fewer than half a million. The registry seeks to track Veterans’ exposure to burn pits and related illnesses to streamline access to Veterans’ benefits. Advocacy groups have been critical of the VA’s rejection of Veteran claims describing cancers and rare respiratory diseases they believe are directly linked to burn pits and toxic particulate exposure. Efforts in the past three years to increase the profile of the problem have been successful enough to instigate Congressional action.
Until the VA has access to federal funding to act on these Veteran claims, there is no way to cover the new claims cost or determine when payouts begin. The problem is that some of these rare cancers and other associated illnesses have short timelines for survival. Veterans need this bill to become law to address their dire needs.
Veterans’ Benefits Attorneys
Our office can assist Veterans when seeking additional benefits to combat burn pit illness due to their service. Like all VA programs, eligibility requirements and filing claims can be complex. The more accurately a Veteran’s first-time submission for benefits is filed, the higher degree of probability for a swift resolution. The Congressional vote of approval is close to completion. Yet, the presumptive benefits status does not include any rare cancers that many Veteran groups say occur at alarmingly high rates because of burn pit exposure overseas. Contact our Elder Law Care Team to help position you to act as soon as possible to get the compensation you deserve.