Disability payouts for new conditions related to burn pit smoke and other combat zone toxic exposure incidents likely won’t happen for another six months at the earliest, but Veterans Affairs leaders insist they’re moving as quickly as they can to address the problem.
“It’s still the fastest route from here to making good on what so many of our veterans are owed,” said Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough during a press conference with reporters on Thursday.
“We’re making this faster, we’re making it more transparent, we’re making it more responsive and more based on veterans experiences.”
On Veterans Day, White House officials announced plans to dramatically overhaul the process for approving new illnesses and injuries believed connected to military toxic exposure cases.
That includes a 90-day review of numerous rare cancers believed linked to military burn pits, with recommendations on whether they should be given fast-track benefits status.
But even if those conditionals are approved, it will take at least another three months before payouts to eligible veterans can begin, McDonough said. That puts checks in the mail no earlier than late May 2022, and likely later if the rulemaking process for those changes has any delays.
Other illnesses — such as constrictive bronchiolitis, widely believed to be linked to breathing in toxic smoke in war zones — are expected to take several more months of research and planning.
Veterans advocates for years have pushed for immediate action on the issue of burn pit injuries for individuals suffering from unusual cancers and respiratory failure, saying some victims have suffered for a decade or more without any compensation for their injuries.
Presumptive status for disability benefits allows veterans an easier path to getting financial compensation for their service-connected injuries, because it does not require individuals to prove their condition is the result of a specific incident while in the ranks.
That’s particularly difficult in cases where burn pit smoke was believed to be the cause of subsequent sicknesses, because few records exist of what items were being burned in the waste fires and exactly where the toxic smoke traveled.
In August, the VA announced for the first time they would grant presumptive benefits status for three illnesses linked to burn pit exposure: asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis.
McDonough said Thursday that since the summer, VA processors have approved nearly 4,700 cases related to those conditions and paid out more than $14 million in related benefits. The department estimates as many as 300,000 veterans may be eligible under that change.
Adding the cancers and other related illnesses could push that total even higher. Veterans Affairs officials have estimated more than 3.5 million troops were exposed to the toxic smoke from burn pits during overseas deployments over the last 20 years.
VA officials are expected to announce the results of their first new review — focused on cancers believed linked to burn pits — in mid-February.
That work will also serve as a new model for how future presumptive condition reviews are conducted.
McDonough said Thursday that officials are not looking at lowering scientific standards for making those determinations, but they will no longer defer completely to studies from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to make their decisions.
In the past, VA officials have pushed off action on burn pit benefits citing a lack of specific evidence from those researchers on the topic.
“There’s a lot of other science available to us on this,” he said. “For example, firefighters spend a lot of time dealing with toxic exposure. We’re widening the aperture for available science.”
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.