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Senate sends burn pit bill to Biden

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Biden, who has been pushing for recognition of the health risks of burns since the campaign, is expected to sign the bill soon.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the legislation would increase federal spending by more than $300 billion in 10 years. That has drawn opposition from groups such as the Nonprofit Committee on Responsible Federal Budgeting, which has said it supports broader coverage but must be offset by other cuts.

The US military stopped using fire pits at bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere nearly a decade ago, but estimates that at least 3.5 million veterans were exposed to enough toxic fumes to cause respiratory problems and some cancers. But even with that admission, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny a majority of disability claims related to burn exposure.

Between 2007 and 2020, 12,582 veterans claimed conditions related to burn exposure, VA Deputy Executive Director of Policies and Procedures Laurine Carson told House legislators in September 2020. The agency approved 2,828, or about 20 percent of those claims.

A VA spokesperson pointed out to POLITICO last month the statement by VA Secretary Denis McDonough, where he compared the impact of the legislation to the Agent Orange Act of 1991 that expanded coverage for more than 2 million Vietnam War veterans exposed to the virus. dangerous toxin.

“We support expanding access to VA health care in the PACT Act and will ensure that expanding health care eligibility does not delay or disrupt care for those veterans already receiving VA health care,” McDonough said.

The number of claims is expected to rise in the wake of new legislation, which orders the VA to recognize that a dozen cancers, chronic lung disease, asthma, emphysema and a host of other respiratory conditions may be associated with burn exposure. . The measure would also require VA providers to include toxic exposures in patient questionnaires, which could allow new patients to enter who are unaware that their conditions could be linked to the pits.

“Toxic exposure affects countless veterans; some don’t even know it yet,” said Jen Burch, communications officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The bill will “remove the burden of proof on veterans and ensure that 80 percent of veterans who were previously rejected will now receive the benefits they deserve,” she added.

The VA has struggled to shorten veterans’ wait times for existing benefits. Service employees wait an average of 100 days for benefits; more than 250,000 waiting longer.

The long delay in benefits led to a pilot technology program, launched in January, to reduce wait times by automating some processes and removing steps such as unnecessary doctor visits. For the time being, the pilot program is aimed at monitoring high blood pressure.

Rob Reynolds, the VA official who led the project, told POLITICO earlier this year that arbitrators using this type of technology resolved cases in an average of 21 days. The VA plans to expand the program to include other health problems such as asthma, which could overlap with efforts to broaden fire coverage.

Making the law is just the beginning, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Chances.), senior member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said on the Senate floor. “There is still a lot of work to do, and the fact is that VA faces significant challenges as it moves forward to help these veterans.”

Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis from North Carolina, Mike Rounds and John Thune from South Dakota, Richard Shelby and Tommy Tuberville from Alabama, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney from Utah, Rand Paul from Kentucky, James Lankford from oklahoma, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, and Mike Crapo and James Risch of Idaho voted against the bill.

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