By: Jordan Kolb, Legislative Intern
On January 19th, the House committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing to discuss the issue of toxic exposure to active duty Service Members and Veterans of the U.S. Military. Chairman Mark Takano began the hearing by highlighting his proposed legislation, the Honoring our PACT Act (H.R. 3967), which has gone through a full legislative process and is expected to be brought to the floor by Speaker Nancy Pelosi soon. H.R. 3967 combines several pieces of proposed legislation regarding toxic exposure in the military. The bill aims to address the full gamut of issues affecting toxic-exposed Veterans access to VA healthcare benefits. Currently, 70% of Veterans’ claims for direct service connection to toxic-exposure are rejected. Many of these Veterans are instead diagnosed with psychosomatic symptoms and treated solely for mental illness rather than being assessed in the context of toxic exposure. VSO representatives in attendance recounted numerous cases in which Veterans were not afforded the opportunity to be diagnosed for toxic-exposure by the VA, and as a result experienced prolonged suffering, irreversible developments in their health conditions, and in some cases death.
H.R. 3967 would open healthcare to 3.5 million Veterans who have been exposed to burn pits and other toxic sources and establish a service connection for over 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers. The bill would expand permanent VA healthcare enrollment eligibility to all Veterans exposed to toxic substances regardless of disability status, establish a presumption of service connection based on toxic exposure (eliminating the burden of proof), and implement VA coordinated research on toxic exposure for years to come. In his opening remarks, Ranking Member Mike Bost expressed logistical concerns arguing that the bill may overlap or compete with measures the VA has already taken to support toxic-exposed Veterans while harping on the potential costs. According to the Congressional Budget Office the costs of this legislation will amount to about 280 billion dollars in new mandatory spending and 147 billion dollars in new discretionary spending. Rep. Bost was met with opposition by many, but perhaps most notably Veteran and Representative Ruben Gallego who cited the ease with which defense spending bills are passed in Congress every year and the importance of considering Veteran care as a cost of war. While Rep. Bost pushed for the idea of a placeholder-like piece of legislation that could be more likely to pass in Congress, the participating Veterans advocates and representatives of various VSOs were united in their backing of H.R. 3967, emphasizing the urgency of the situation. John Stewart pointed out that the VA (currently shelling out 90 million dollars for viagra annually) is still only spending 6 to 7 million dollars on toxic exposure related care in 2022; “access to a system that doesn't understand toxic exposure doesn’t help anybody.”
The views expressed in the articles in this publication are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the organizations for which they work, CWOAUSCG, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, or the U.S. government.