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New Legislation on Benefits for Toxic Chemical Exposure Through Burn Pits Introduced in the Senate

Monday, August 10, 2020

Just days after the House voted to pass their draft of the annual defense authorization bill, new legislation was introduced in the Senate by Thom Tillis, a Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee member.

Inspired in part by water contamination issues at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, which got thousands of veterans and their families sick, the legislation would serve to bolster the handling of cases of alleged toxic exposure.

Historically, change in the manner in which toxic exposure is covered by the VA has been slow moving. Though there has been widespread knowledge of the problem at Camp Lejeune decades, the VA did not authorize disability benefits for claims related to chemical exposure until 2015. “Veterans stationed at Camp Lejeune spent decades pushing for documentation of their exposure and fair treatment for the damages caused by the military, but this cannot continue to be the norm,” Tillis said. “(This bill) ensures that all veterans are given a fair and uniform process to receive the health care and benefits to which they are entitled following exposure to toxicants during their service.”

Among the provisions in the bill are recommendations from a new coalition of advocacy groups focused on toxic exposure. The overall goal will be to better understand treatment options for those affected. One of the more notable facets of the legislation calls for an independent “Toxic Exposure Review Commission,” to be established. The commission would be comprised of health experts, veterans’ advocates, and environmental researchers. Their primary goal would be to identify and investigate allegations from active service members and veterans.

The legislation goes further to support better understanding of toxic exposure and its impact by mandating closer coordination between the VA leaders and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Together, they would establish links between exposure and veterans’ health issues, while also serving to augment the testing and presumptive benefits status for those conditions.

Though some momentum has been gained as more attention has been cast upon toxic chemical exposure in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, establishing a connection between exposure and health issues has proven problematic. This is largely due to inadequacies related to the monitoring of burn pit fires and the resistance from the VA to establish benefits without clear scientific links.

With summer break for Congress approaching, Tillis’ bill faces an uncertain future as finding time for hearings and votes on the topic might prove difficult. Nevertheless, Tillis remains hopeful that the measure can move through these challenges.

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