Defense

Biden presses Congress on legislation to address veterans’ toxic exposures

The Department of Veterans of Affairs is seen in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 3, 2021.
Greg Nash
The Department of Veterans of Affairs is seen in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

President Biden urged Congress to pass legislation addressing toxic exposures in veterans after announcing that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) is taking action to help those who suffer harmful effects from having been exposed to substances.

In a statement on Monday, Biden announced that the VA is issuing a rule that would propose expanding health benefits to veterans suffering from nine rare respiratory cancers.

Biden said that America agrees that supporting veterans is widely supported “no matter where we live or who we voted for in the last election.”

“My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to support our nation’s veterans, and I urge Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to comprehensively address toxic exposures and further deliver the vital benefits our veterans have earned,” the president said. “I will sign it immediately.”

Biden first previewed the VA’s action in his State of the Union address last month, when he announced that the agency would take steps to expand care for veterans who suffer from nine rare cancers related to toxic chemicals.

In a statement announcing the rule on Monday, the agency said it determined that there is “biological plausibility between airborne hazards and carcinogenesis of the respiratory tract — and the unique circumstances of these rare cancers warrant a presumption of service connection.”

Burn pits were often used in areas like Southwest Asia and Afghanistan for open-air combustion of trash and other solid waste products. The VA believes that about 3.5 million veterans were exposed to these burn pits and qualify for care.

The Senate passed the Health Care for Burn Pit Victims Act in mid-February, which would expand VA healthcare for combat veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and were exposed to toxic burn pits.

That legislation extends the period of eligibility for care from five years to 10 years following discharge, and includes training on toxic exposures for VA employees, mandates clinical toxic exposure screenings and boosts federal research on the topic.  

The House also passed legislation in early March that would expand care eligibility by establishing a presumption of service connection for roughly two-dozen types of respiratory illnesses and cancers.

“We learned a horrible lesson after Vietnam, when the harmful effects of exposure to Agent Orange sometimes took years to manifest, and too many veterans were left unable to access the care they needed,” Biden said.

“I refuse to repeat that mistake when it comes to the veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he continued.

Tags Biden Biden administration congress Health Benefits pentagon Toxic exposure Veterans Affairs

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