KPAX: Tester, Moran roll out toxic exposure bill for post-911 combat veterans

by Martin Kidston

Combat veterans from the post-911 era could be the first to access expanded health care for toxic exposure under a bill introduced by Sens. Jon Tester and Jerry Moran on Tuesday.

Tester, a Montana Democrat and Moran, a Kansas Republican, said their Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act represents the first in a three-step strategy intended to tackle toxic exposure over generations of conflict and its health impacts on the veteran community.

“Without action, post-911 veterans will suffer as Vietnam veterans have, and every year more toxic exposure veterans will pay the ultimate price waiting for the treatment they need,” Tester said. “We’re seizing on an immediate opportunity to advance legislation that will connect millions of burn-pit veterans with the care they need, and the care they can’t wait for any longer.”

Efforts to advance the Compensation and Overdue Support for Troops Act haven’t succeeded just yet, prompting Tester and Moran to break their legislation into various pieces in hopes of passing them individually. The Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans marks the first step in that process and is one of several moving pieces within the VA to address toxic exposure.

Tester, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the push includes an effort to provide greater access to health care for veterans exposed to airborne toxic materials, including burn pits. The second phase would establish a new and transparent process allowing the VA to determine future presumptive conditions.

Phase three includes delivering benefits to toxic-exposure veterans, Tester said.

“Right now, one-third of the 3.5 million post-911 combat veterans are unable to access VA care,” Tester said. “Many of these men and women were exposed to burn pits, and that’s a serious problem. Some of them may assume they would never need VA care but are now battling late and emerging health care challenges, often a byproduct of toxic exposure.”

Moran, who now serves as the VA committee’s ranking member, said he and Tester together have tackled challenges within the VA system over the years, including mental health and suicide prevention. They’ve now teamed up to push the first piece of their legislation forward related to toxic exposure.

Moran said the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act goes before the committee on Wednesday.

“Our expectation is that it will pass because every Republican member and every Democrat member of the committee is a co-sponsor of this legislation,” Moran said. “This is the first step on a continuum in trying to make certain those who experienced toxic exposure and as a result are suffering in their health will receive medical benefits.”

Moran added that the VA is working to address presumptions for benefits and is testing when certain presumptions on exposure and its impacts will come into play in determining a veteran’s health care needs.

“The VA doesn’t have the authority to do what this legislation authorizes in regard to medical benefits,” Moran said. “The VA does have the authority to add presumptions, and they’re in the process of moving forward in that regard.”