Claims opened to burn pit victims

U.S. Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., shown here at the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade Casing Ceremony in 2019, has been advocating for reforms to the way the Department of Veterans Affairs handles claims from people exposed to toxic burn pits in the line of service. Watertown Daily Times

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday began processing disability claims for veterans exposed to burn pits during service in southwest Asia, presuming their medical problems were caused by their exposure.

The policy change will allow potentially millions of veterans who suffer from chronic illnesses like asthma, cancer and more as a result of the military’s waste disposal process to access VA-funded medical care to treat their illnesses.

Burn pits were used on international U.S. military bases across the world, but especially in southwest Asia and the Middle East. On those bases, all manner of waste including computer equipment, food scraps, medical waste and more were piled into a pit dug into the ground, doused in jet fuel and set ablaze.

For years, the VA has denied that the burn pits caused diseases, and required veterans to provide proof in some manner that their illnesses were service-related before offering aid or medical treatment, leading to many cases where care was denied.

The new VA policy will allow veterans with asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis who served in southwest Asia between Aug. 2, 1990, and today, or the Middle East between Sept. 19, 2001, and today, to apply for disability through the VA.

“I announced my intent to initiate rulemaking on May 27 to consider adding respiratory conditions to the list of chronic illnesses,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dennis R. McDonough as he announced the changes. “Through this process I determined that the evidence provided was sufficient to establish presumptions of service connection for these three respiratory conditions. This is the right decision, and VA will continue to use a holistic approach in determining exposure presumptives moving forward.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, lauded the VA for its decision in a release on Wednesday.

“This is life-changing news for countless American veterans who are relying on the VA to provide benefits for illnesses incurred while serving our country,” she said. “More than three million service members could have been exposed to toxic burn pits and starting this week the VA has taken a critical step toward removing the burden of proof on veterans suffering from these three types of respiratory illnesses.”

Sen. Gillibrand, along with Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., introduced a bill in Congress last year that would provide compensation and medical care to veterans who served near burn pits and are now suffering from a list of 20 diseases. Those diseases include any kind of cancer, chronic bronchitis and other chronic infections of the airways, emphysema, granulomatous disease, interstitial lung disease, lumphoma, pleuritis, sarcoidosis and pulmonary fibrosis.

The VA’s Monday announcement only makes a small dent in the number of veterans Sen. Gillibrand wants to see expanded support for. In her statement, the senator said it’s a good first step, but more has to be done.

Sen. Gillibrand called on Congress to pass her legislation that would offer both disability benefits and medical care to soldiers.

“Congress must pass the full Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act to cover the true cost of war and get veterans the full spectrum of care they need,” she said.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs voted in June to pass a bill that contains many measures from the Senator’s bill, and the bill now awaits a vote on the House floor. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee recently voted to pass the COST of War Act in May, which also includes part of the senator’s legislation.

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