Congress Heads for Significantly Expanded Benefits for Veterinarians Exposed to Combustion Hearths

A panel of experts look on during a briefing at the United States Capitol in Washington on April 30, 2019, at the start of a short documentary video about troops who suffered from exposure to toxins released from outbreaks of combustion abroad. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

(Tribune News Service) – Like many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Thomas U. Kim noticed something different about his health upon returning from overseas.

“I never had any allergies or allergic symptoms until I returned from my deployment in 2006,” said Kim, a former Army Reserve officer who served three deployments in Iraq and is now president and CEO of the Western New York Community Action Organization.

But again, prior to his Iraq deployments, Kim had not been exposed to the acrid toxic fumes emanating from the “burning pits” where troops burned anything they didn’t need – fuel, furniture, metals, plastics. , anything.

And while he’s worried that his symptoms could eventually progress to something much more serious, for now he’s lucky.

“There are a lot of veterans who had much worse symptoms, from upper respiratory issues to cancer,” he said.

Kim is one of 3.5 million veterans who, according to the government’s own accounts, have been exposed to fumes from burning fireplaces since the 1991 Gulf War.

Luckily for Kim and millions of other veterans, Congress is about to finally do something about the damage caused by the smoke from burning pits and other toxins they were exposed to while serving their country.

Last month, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which adds 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers to the list of conditions considered service-related, meaning veterinarians there exposed can automatically get health care and disability benefits from the VA. . And despite a parliamentary glitch, both houses of Congress are expected to approve the measure later this summer.

Kim is one of many veterans who are happy about it.

“It’s very close to my heart, as well as the guys I’ve served with, many of whom have perished,” said Kim, 55, whose son was an active-duty army officer and whose daughter is now serving in the Air Force.

Veterans groups say that without the PACT law in place, the VA has denied 80% of the claims it receives for disability benefits related to combustion smoke and other toxins. But once Congress passes the bill, the number of approved claims is likely to skyrocket.

And that’s good news for the two US senators from New York, who have been calling for increased benefits for victims of burning fireplaces for years.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat who sits on the Armed Services Committee, has been among the issue’s most public advocates, appearing on occasion with comedian Jon Stewart to push for the bill’s passage. .

‘Our service members and their families are giving their all for our country, and as a nation we promise to take care of them when they return home,’ she said after the Senate passed the bill. in a vote of 84 to 14. “Finally, we are honoring this promise and paying the price we owe them for our freedoms, our values ​​and our security.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, also a Democrat, agreed.

“Thousands of upstate New York veterans and more than 3.5 million veterinarians across America were exposed to toxins from hotbeds in Iraq and Afghanistan while exercising. from office, and for too long bureaucratic rules have denied them treatment for cancers, respiratory illnesses and the countless other illnesses contracted while fighting for our freedom,” Schumer said.

And it’s not just veterans who have been exposed to fire pits who will benefit from the bill. The measure also expands disability coverage for veterans who have been exposed to Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant. Vets exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam have long been eligible for disability coverage, but the PACT Act extends eligibility to veterans who served in other locations where the U.S. military used the defoliant, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam and American Samoa.

“Some of these veterans service organizations have been working on this from Vietnam,” Stewart said at a press conference on Capitol Hill earlier this year. “This country’s learning curve of how we treat our veterans when they return from war is so painfully slow. The pace is unacceptable.

As if to prove Stewart’s point, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer noted this parliamentary problem shortly after the Senate passed the bill. The Senate legislation includes a narrow tax provision, which would provide tax relief to medical professionals who agree to work at a rural VA facility — but under the Constitution, tax provisions cannot come from the Senate.

“It’s the House’s constitutional responsibility to initiate them,” Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, told reporters. “So we are trying to solve this problem. And as soon as we can get it fixed, we want to get it through.

Veterans’ rights advocates aren’t worried the glitch will hold up the bill for long.

“If you’ve been following, you’re probably a little confused and wondering: weren’t we just a day away from the president signing this bill? And the answer is yes — but,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, during a recent Facebook Live discussion of the bill.

Opposition to the bill is minimal, said Tom Porter, executive vice president of the veterans group and man on Capitol Hill.

Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, expressed concern about the cost of the bill, saying in a statement, “The Department of Veterans Affairs already has the authority to ensure veterans receive this care when the evidence linked to their service. Instead, the PACT Act goes well beyond that, substituting the political judgment of Congress in place of available evidence and including unnecessary changes to longstanding budget rules to allow hundreds of billions in additional spending for non-purposes. linked.

But Porter said he expects Congress to fix the legislative glitch and pass the legislation soon after he returns this week from his two-week break on Independence Day. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, supports the bill, as do top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees.

“We have so much momentum on this legislation,” Porter said.

Kim is happy to hear that.

“We stood with the nation when asked to leave,” he said. “So the nation should at least support us.”

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