Bozeman Daily Chronicle: 'Nobody knew': Tester, veterans discuss burn pit bill in Bozeman

by Alex Miller

A bill aimed at expanding coverage for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits is close to making it to President Joe Biden’s desk.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said Friday at the Travis W. Atkins Veteran Support Center at Montana State University that his bill, the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 could make it to the president’s desk by next week.

“We’ll get this done next week,” Tester said. “I feel pretty confident about that.”

The bill recently went through a procedural vote in the Senate, where it passed 86-12. Republican Sen. Steve Daines voted in favor of the bill. Daines said that he looks forward to the bill becoming law.

“Montana veterans served our nation with honor, and it is our duty to ensure they have the care and services they need when they return home,” Daines said.

Republican Congressman Rep. Matt Rosendale voted against the House version of the bill in March – that bill passed 256-174.

A release from Rosendale’s office said that the bill would create an “estimated backlog of 1.5 million” claims at the VA and would result in “unspecified and undirected” use of the agency’s resources.

Rosendale’s office did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

A Congressional Budget Office report on the estimated cost of Tester’s bill was released on June 6. The agency estimated that the legislation could cost $278.5 billion over 10 years.

Tester said that the cost of the bill has been driven down “about every way we can.”

He said that taking care of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits could save money on health care in the future.

“At some point in time, you just got to do the right thing,” Tester said.

Tester said that there are between 8 and 10 Republican amendments being negotiated on. One would require the VA to conduct studies to ensure the agency is delivering health care, which Tester said would “study the thing to death” or delay health care.

Tester said that the bill would expand coverage to span generations of veterans, and add coverage to two health conditions linked to the usage of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War: Hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of uncertain significance, or MGUS.

The latter condition can cause myeloma, which is a cancer affecting plasma cells in the bloodstream.

“Fifty years ago, Vietnam ended, and we’re still talking about toxic exposure conditions,” Tester said.

Nearly 3.5 million veterans have toxic-exposure in the U.S. Close to 66,000 veterans in Montana could have been exposed to toxic materials.

Robert Hunter, a Vietnam veteran, was exposed to Agent Orange during his service. Hunter said that he contracted MGUS.

Hunter served in the army as an engineering officer. He was responsible for going out to areas where the herbicide was sprayed to mark it on a map.

He also was charged with making sure weeds growing in minefields were kept at bay. Hunter said he would dip a pitcher into a vat of Agent Orange and put it into a weed sprayer worn on a person’s back.

“They didn’t really care about Agent Orange because nobody knew it was poisonous,” Hunter said.

Hunter filed a petition with the VA Secretary in 2017 to add MGUS to the agency’s Agent Orange presumptive disease list, and filed a claim asking the agency to waive health care copayments for non-disabling conditions like MGUS.

He said that Tester’s office was supportive of his efforts.

The bill would also give VA eligibility to veterans who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001.

Joe Schumacher, the director of Veterans Services at MSU, discussed issues facing veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, like increased rates of suicide.

“And toxic exposure is another one that is starting to rear its ugly head, even in my generation of those veterans who served post-9/11,” Schumacher said.