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Senate passes bill to aid veterans exposed to toxic burn pits

The U.S. Senate passed a measure on Thursday that would expand Veterans Administration health care for veterans with health conditions related to burn pit and Agent Orange exposure.

U.S. Sen Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, helped to negotiate the bipartisan Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act. Both she and Hawaii colleague Sen. Brian Schatz voted in favor of the measure, which passed on a 84-14 vote.

“Over decades of conflict, millions of American service members have been exposed to burn pits and other toxic materials,” Hirono said. “These men and women risked their lives in service to our nation, and we have a duty to ensure they get care for conditions caused by these toxic exposures.

“This moment would not have been possible without all of the veterans and their loved ones who have shared their stories and advocated for these long-overdue changes,” she said. “I thank them for their service and bravery, and I look forward to this bill being signed into law on their behalf. I’ll continue working to help make sure every veteran in Hawaii and across our country has access to high-quality care through the VA.”

The bill now moves to the House for consideration. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already pledged to quickly advance the measure and send it to Pres. Joe Biden for final approval.

Open-air burn pits were widely used on U.S. military bases as a convenient way to dispose of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. The practice was banned except in specific circumstances in 2010 following numerous claims of long-term and sometimes fatal effects on veterans exposed to the fires. Despite a growing body of research indicating a link between burn pits and adverse health effects like cancer and lung disease, the VA has continued to reject the majority of benefit claims linked to burn pit exposure.

The bill is named for Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, who deployed to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard, and died in 2020 from toxic exposure as a result of his military service.

If passed, the measure will expand VA health care eligibility to post-9/11 combat veterans, a population that includes more than 3.5 million toxin-exposed veterans. It will also create a framework to recognize toxic exposure to veterans; add some 23 conditions related to burn pit and toxic exposure to the VA’s list of “service presumptions”; expand coverage for veterans exposed to Agent Orange and strengthen federal research on toxic exposure.

Further, the bill will improve VA resources and training for toxin-exposed veterans and promote investments in VA claims processing, workforce and health care facilities.

“For decades, the government has failed service members and veterans who have fallen ill from exposure to dangerous toxic substances while they served our country,” Schatz said. “This bipartisan bill will finally help make things right and provide the health care and benefits our veterans deserve.”