Veterans Affairs officials this week will add nine respiratory cancers to the list of illnesses presumed caused by burn pit exposure, easing the path veterans suffering from those conditions have to take to get disability benefits.
The move follows promises by administration officials last fall to speed up care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pit smoke in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas locations over the last 32 years.
In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough called the move overdue.
“Veterans who suffer from rare respiratory cancers associated with their service deserve the very best America has to offer, but they’ve had to wait for the care and benefits they deserve for far too long,” he said. “That ends now.
“With these new presumptives, veterans who suffer from these rare respiratory cancers will finally get the world-class care and benefits they deserve, without having to prove causality between their service and their condition.”
The nine new conditions are:
- 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;
- Typical and atypical carcinoid of the lung;
The policy applies to veterans who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations beginning Aug. 2, 1990, to the present, or in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria or Djibouti beginning Sept. 19, 2001, to the present. That includes all veterans who served in the Gulf War, the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan.
VA officials did not say how many individuals would be affected by the new policy, although they did classify the cancers as “rare” in their announcement.
The issue of presumptive benefits for burn pit victims has been a priority for advocates in recent years because of the difficulty in linking many health problems to the toxic smoke present at many overseas bases.
Under most cases, veterans must show a direct link between their medical condition and military service in order to receive disability benefits, which can amount to several thousand dollars a month.
But when VA grants presumptive status for an illness, that skips the need for proof of connection, making the path to getting disability payouts easier. In the past, VA has approved presumptive status for things such as exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, a known carcinogen.
Last August, for the first time, the department approved presumptive status for veterans suffering from three illnesses — asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis — related to burn pit smoke overseas.
As of last month, VA officials had processed about 16,500 new claims related to those burn pit injuries, totaling $36 million in retroactive benefits.
The White House also promised additional research into other medical problems believed linked (but never conclusively proven) to the toxic smoke produced when military members disposed of a variety of waste in open-air trash fires.
VA officials said the decision to add the nine new conditions came after researchers found “biological plausibility between airborne hazards and carcinogenesis of the respiratory tract” and that “the unique circumstances of these rare cancers warrant a presumption of service connection.”
Both McDonough and President Joe Biden have said they will look to go even further with the burn pit presumptives, but are limited somewhat by VA benefits regulations.
“Supporting our veterans is a critical part of the Unity Agenda I proposed for our nation,” Biden said in a statement. “No matter where we live or who we voted for in the last election, we all agree that we should serve our veterans as well as they have served us.
“My administration will continue to do everything in its power to support our nation’s veterans, and I urge Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to comprehensively address toxic exposures and further deliver the vital benefits our veterans have earned. I will sign it immediately.”
Congressional leaders are considering sweeping legislation that would grant presumptive disability status for an even broader list of medical conditions believed linked to burn pits.
Department officials are expected to reach out to veterans who have filed burn pit claims in the past to inform them of the changes. Individuals can also get more information on the benefits through the VA web site.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.