The VA has to investigate every veteran’s claim that the myriad health issues they wish to get care for are connected to their service. But the problem is, many of those veterans’ deteriorating health can’t wait ― including millions exposed to toxic substances.

To speed up access to care, both houses of Congress are considering legislation granting “presumptive” status to toxic exposure claims, allowing applicants to start using VA services while they wait for adjudication.

“VA’s current model of ‘wait and see’ is not working,” Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said Wednesday during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing prompted by the TEAM Act of 2020, introduced by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., in October.

That bill mirrors a Senate version approved by that Veterans Affairs committee in September, which now awaits action from the full Senate. There was no discussion at the hearing of how much it would cost to enact these measures.

While the legislation has bipartisan support, much of Wednesday’s questioning focused on the VA’s process for determining whether certain symptoms are related to a long list of diseases and syndromes the VA can trace back to experiences while serving.

Generally, VA has determined what kinds of claims can be presumed service-connected, leaning heavily on research from the National Academy of Sciences.

But in the case of toxic exposures, like burn pits, research is still ongoing as to whether there is a definitive link between those and certain cancers, thyroid disorders, hypertension and other health issues.

The VA website states definitively that there is no known relationship between these illnesses and burn pit exposure, according to David Shulkin, a former VA secretary who testified at the hearing,

“That simply is wrong. I’ve called on that to be removed,” Shulkin, whom President Donald Trump fired in March 2018, told lawmakers. “And because the VA is not acting swiftly enough, your legislation is critical for our veterans and I strongly support it.”

As it stands now, according to Beth Murphy, VA’s executive director of compensation services, about 64 percent of GWOT veterans who claim respiratory issues related to burn pits are eventually determined eligible for benefits.

Rather than wait for research to come back and be evaluated, which could mean years waiting for Global War on Terrorism veterans, Congress may step in and dictate to VA how to respond to these claims.

“... when the data’s not available, but appears to be plausible, VA would give the veteran immediate access to benefits and services,” Shulkin said.

Roughly 3.5 million service members have been experienced toxic exposures, he said.

The legislation would also prevent VA from leaning too heavily on NAS research that could potentially come back finding that the link between burn pits and some diseases isn’t strong enough, he added.

That would mean going ahead with evaluation and treatment for illnesses related to burn pit exposure, before the VA’s adjudication is complete.

For those working their way through the system right now, there is the burden of providing proof that they were exposed to fumes from burn pits.

“This process leaves an individual veteran to fight a system that is too often too much for her to take on,” Shulkin said. “Many veterans just give up, or never bother in the first place.”

Any evidence of burn pit complications that came up during service has to be tracked down, if it exists on paper at all.

And that is only, of course, if the symptoms manifested during a military career. Often, they take years to compound, and can’t necessarily be traced back to a single deployment, type of training or installation.

“Truly, a veteran might have no proof that they can provide as to why they’re sick or why they can’t run a mile without stopping and being short of breath, or why they suddenly get migraines, or why they have these other symptoms...” Luria said.

On top of that, DoD doesn’t make a practice of measuring levels of toxic chemicals in the air or water troops are exposed to while deployed.

“...I think we’re all united in that we want to take that burden off the veteran,” Luria said. “Those who have come forward to ask for help deserve help. We simply cannot make them wait.”

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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