Billings Gazette: Tester: Veterans' burn pit damage health care bill 'a big damn deal'

by Tom Lutey

Ayears-long struggle to assure health coverage for some 3.5 million combat veterans exposed to military burn pits since 9/11 has taken a big step forward as the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the measure last week.

The bill, known as the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act, had been introduced just 15 days earlier by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, and Ranking Member Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican.

Friday, Tester said it was likely every combat veteran since 2001 had been exposed to potentially toxic substances emitted from trash pits in Iraq and Afghanistan post-9/11. The Department of Defense also recognizes the problem in veterans who served in Southwest Asia during the 1990s, where burning garbage was the norm.

The legislation that passed Feb. 16, was the product of earlier bills by several Senate Veterans’ Affairs members that received hearings in 2021.

“When we did a hearing on the bills that are in this bill nine months ago, there were people who had needed a double lung transplant for God’s sake because of this,” Tester said. “One guy was in pretty tough shape, to be honest. We had to move the meeting to be able to meet his health care requirements.”

It’s estimated by the Department of Defense that 3.5 million combat veterans were exposed to toxic trash fires and other sources of toxic emissions. Of those combat vets, roughly a third don’t have coverage for exposure.

For most veterans the window for health care eligibility is five years after discharge. The Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act would create a 10-year, post-discharge enrollment period for all veterans. It would also create an open enrollment period of one year, during which veterans experiencing symptoms from as far back as 2001 could register, no mater how long it has been since they were discharged.

“Many of these veterans could be living with undiagnosed illness linked to military toxic exposures, or they’re already experiencing the illness due to that exposure,” Moran said during a Feb. 1 press conference concerning Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act.

The cost of the expanding health care participation for veterans has been a deal breaker for the some in the Senate, where more than a simple majority vote is required to advance the funding. In the House, where a simple majority vote is sufficient for passing bills, toxic exposure bills have not only been passed more easily but have also been broad in scale.

Attempts to secure the coverage date back to at least 2019 and had attracted national attention, in part because comedian Jon Stewart and leaders of the movement to secure health coverage for emergency responders to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center took up the cause for burn pit coverage for veterans.

“We are a country that loves its veterans, at least we purport to. And we support the troops, and we put on our flag pins, and we stand,” Stewart told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee during a livestreamed hearing last month. “And they get discounts at Denny’s. But the true support of having their backs is when they need it, and when they are sick and dying due to the service they gave to this country, and they come back and are put under scrutiny and made to be defendants in cases about their own heath care. It is unacceptable.”

Tester said the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act is just one of three bills that needs passage to deliver for veterans. The next bill will establish a process for Veterans’ Affairs to be able to address toxic exposures, which VA hasn’t been able to do yet. The second bill is likely to pass the Senate easily, but the third phase of the bill series will be challenging, Tester said.

“The third phase is a phase where we’re going to find out,” Tester said. “It’ll sort the men from the boys pretty quick because this is the one that delivers VA benefits. Not only to burn victims, but there’s a couple hypertension and MGUS (monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, a blood condition) that still haven’t been dealt with from the Vietnam War. And this deals with them too.”

Combined, the three bills contain what Tester originally introduced in May 2021 as a Compensation and Overdue Support for Troops (COST) of War Act. The COST of War Act was a sweeping expansion of health benefits for veterans, allocating $430 billion in spending over 10 years, including $180 billion for direct health care and $250 billion in other benefits.

Tester indicated then that the COST of War Act wouldn’t advance unless the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member agreed to do so. In the end, there wasn’t unanimous support. The new three-bill approach is an attempt to get the Cost of War Act provisions passed unanimously in smaller bites.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be that easy in the House. But we’ll see. We’ll see what happens,” Tester said. “But keep in mind, this time, this is just the first step of three. And this is an important step. And it’s a big damn deal. Make no mistake about it.”