Measures aimed at helping U.S. veterans suffering the effects of toxic exposure are now one step closer to becoming federal law with support from north Jersey lawmakers, including Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) who advocated for many of them.
The U.S. House passed the “Honoring Our PACT Act” in a 256-174 vote. The legislation (H.R. 3967), which now awaits Senate action, would provide health care for up to 3.5 million U.S. veterans exposed to airborne hazards and burn pits, streamline the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ review process for coverage decisions and acknowledge that there was significant U.S. service member exposure to airborne hazards and burn pits, which are locations where military personnel burn trash and hazardous waste.
“It’s inexcusable that more than 240,000 veterans have signed up for the VA’s burn pit registry, but 70% of claims have been denied. With this bipartisan legislation and my provisions we passed today, we’re fighting to expand access to care and benefits for our brave veterans exposed to toxic substances during their service,” Gottheimer said.
This Generation’s Agent Orange
Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11), a U.S. veteran herself, hailed the bill’s passage as well.
“Burn pits have rightly been called this generation’s Agent Orange,” said Sherrill, referring to the tactical herbicide best known for its use during the Vietnam War and the harm it did to both soldiers who fought in the conflict and Vietnamese people.
“Too many of our veterans, including as many as 6,000 in NJ-11 alone, suffer from serious health problems caused by toxic exposure during their military service, and too many of them have been denied the care they’ve earned,” Sherrill added in a statement.
“That’s why I was proud to vote for the Honoring Our Pact Act, long-overdue legislation that ensures our veterans receive help, without waiting decades, by streamlining the VA’s process for establishing toxic exposure presumptions.”
Like Gottheimer and Sherrill, Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., a Democrat who serves New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District, supported the bill.
Payne said many U.S. vets who suffered toxic exposure during their deployments ultimately developed deadly cancers
Cancer Risk to Vets
The legislation would direct doctors to examine veterans for cancer, radiation exposure, hypertension and 23 respiratory illnesses directly, according to Payne. In addition, it would make more veterans eligible for medical treatments for these diseases faster and improves the data collection of veteran medical conditions to help future veterans who suffer from these diseases, he said.
“This bill helps millions of American veterans who are suffering from diseases and other medical ailments they received during their service to our nation,” Payne said in a statement lauding the measure’s House passage.
“It allows doctors to look for these ailments directly in order to diagnose them early. The earlier we can diagnose these illnesses, the quicker we can get our veterans treatments and save lives,” he added.
Gottheimer, citing VA statistics, said that at least 3.5 million members of the armed services were exposed to burn pits in deployments during the global war on terror. Some of the open-air pits were the size of football fields and were used to incinerate everything from used medical supplies and electronics to garbage and human waste, the congressman said.
The House-passed legislation would provide eligibility for Department of Veterans Affairs medical care to veterans who: participated in a toxic exposure risk activity or served in specified locations on specified dates.
Additionally, the bill would establish within the VA a Formal Advisory Committee on Toxic Exposure, a Science Review Board, and a Working Group to assist with the various procedures in establishing or removing presumptions of service-connection.
The legislation’s scope reaches back more than three decades to cover U.S. veterans dating back to 1991 and Operation Desert Storm through more recent post-9/11 conflicts.
All but one member of New Jersey’s U.S. congressional delegation voted for the bill. Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew of Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District was the sole Garden State no vote for the proposal.