Kansas, Montana senators unveil plan to provide VA care for burn pit exposure

By: - February 1, 2022 12:03 pm

U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran, left, and Jon Tester answer questions about their burn pit legislation during a news conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from live video)

TOPEKA — U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Jon Tester say swift action is needed to ensure post-9/11 combat veterans who were exposed to burn pits can receive medical care.

Moran, a Kansas Republican, and Tester, a Montana Democrat, in a news conference Tuesday outlined a billion-dollar plan to offer access to VA medical care to every post-9/11 combat veteran impacted by toxic exposure. As the ranking member and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, they plan to hold a hearing on the bill on Wednesday.

“As more and more veterans report alarming rates of toxic exposure-related illnesses, one thing is abundantly clear,” Tester said. “Without action, post-9/11 veterans will suffer as Vietnam veterans have. And every year more toxic exposure veterans will pay the ultimate price while waiting for the treatment that they need.”

The cost of the bill would be just under $1 billion, Tester said.

During wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, federal contractors would fill holes in the ground with garbage, medical waste, vehicles and plastics, douse the trash in jet fuel and set it on fire, The New York Times reported. Defense officials have been reluctant to accept responsibility for the health issues caused by breathing in the smoke from these burn pits.

Moran said the 3.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans experienced some level of toxic exposure.

Soldiers might have undiagnosed illness or late-emerging health care challenges. Some missed the window of eligibility for VA care, and some assumed they weren’t eligible.

“This is the first step on a continuum of trying to make certain that those who experienced toxic exposure, and as a result are suffering in their health and well being, receive medical benefits,” Moran said.

The proposed Senate legislation would guarantee access to VA care, allow the VA to link toxic exposure to military service, and strengthen federal research on toxic exposure. Every member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee co-sponsored the bill, and there is similar legislation in the House.

Moran and Tester see the Senate bill as the first part of a three-step plan. The next step is to establish a process for the VA to determine future presumptive conditions, and the final piece is to provide overdue benefits to thousands of toxic-exposed veterans.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.