On the same day that House lawmakers questioned whether Veterans Affairs officials are doing enough to help veterans with serious injuries believed caused by burn pits, Senate lawmakers advanced legislation to extend new testing and benefits for veterans who have suffered a range of toxic exposure injuries.
The separate moves are part of a larger push on Capitol Hill of late on the issue of toxic smoke from burn pits used in the recent wars. Last week, a coalition of advocates (including comedian Jon Stewart) rallied last week in favor of separate legislation to grant presumptive disability status to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because of widespread exposure to the airborne contaminants.
On Wednesday, the Senate legislation — sponsored by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and backed by a coalition of veterans advocates — was approved by the chamber’s Veterans' Affairs committee and could be taken up by the full Senate in coming weeks.
It would establish an independent “Toxic Exposure Review Commission,” charged with identifying and investigating allegations from troops and veterans, as well as broaden testing and presumptive benefits status for some related conditions.
In a statement, Tillis said the legislative momentum "is a positive step to ensure that all veterans are given a fair and uniform process to receive the health care and benefits to which they are entitled.
“After working alongside veterans who were stationed at Camp Lejeune [where groundwater contamination sickened many troops and family members] and fighting for servicemembers exposed to toxicants from burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was clear that the men and women who served our country deserve better.”
Members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee confronted department officials on that issue on Wednesday, saying that despite overwhelming evidence of past military toxic exposure illnesses, officials have been reluctant to grant disability benefits to burn pit victims.
VA officials said of 12,582 veterans disability claims related to burn pits filed in the last 13 years, only 2,828 have been approved. That means about 78 percent of claims have been dismissed for lack of evidence or a clear medical connection with the burn pit smoke.
Laurine Carson, VA’s deputy executive director for policy and procedures, said the department is continuing to review recent findings from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine which suggested connections between burn pit smoke and illnesses like respiratory failure and rare cancers, but also lamented the lack of clear scientific evidence.
She said the department encourages veterans to sign up with VA’s Open Burn Pit Registry, which already have more than 200,000 names.
But lawmakers said that registry provides little immediate help for veterans dealing with burn pit illnesses, and said department officials need to find a quicker way to address the problem.
“We may not have all the answers on burn pit exposure soon, if ever,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., chairwoman of the committee’s panel on disability assistance. “What we do know is that it’s making people very sick. And I can’t tell these people to sit down to wait another 10 years because quite frankly, some of them might not have another 10 years.”
In addition to Tillis' bill and a measure from Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., on the presumptive benefits status for burn pit exposure, lawmakers in the House and Senate are considering several measures as part of the annual defense authorization bill that would also address testing and medical care for veterans facing those health issues.
If they become law, the combination of the measures could result in the most productive session for burn pit advocates in years, if ever.
However, Congress faces a complicated and condensed legislative schedule for the rest of 2020, due to the pending November election and anticipated Senate confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice.
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.