WASHINGTON –– Health care coverage for veterans exposed to toxins needs to be streamlined, advocates told lawmakers on Tuesday.
“We are a country that loves its veterans — certainly, we purport to,” actor and veterans advocate Jon Stewart told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “But the true support of having a veteran’s back is when they need that support. When they are sick and dying due to the service they gave to this country… and are put under scrutiny and made to be defendants in a case concerning their own health care and lives – that’s unacceptable.”
Veterans have to take extra steps, such as additional paperwork and medical exams, to prove a connection between medical conditions related to toxic exposure and their experiences in the military in order to receive health care coverage from the Veterans Affairs Department.
“I know veterans who have walked into appointments and they leave hopeless,” said Rosie Lopez Torres, executive director of Burn Pits 360. “I don’t know how many people have put a bullet in their head because they’re so hopeless at the end of the day. They’re losing their homes, they’re losing their vehicles, they’re losing their jobs.”
Air Force veteran Jen Burch experienced excessive delays when filing her toxic exposure claim.
“It took over six ER trips and thousands of dollars later, and I’ll never get that money back, but thankfully I have medical care,” Burch told lawmakers.
She said it took seven years for the VA to approve her disability related to toxic exposure – a period in which a nodule in her lung doubled in size. Now, she has to have yearly check-ups to ensure it doesn’t turn into cancer.
Legislation intended to address this issue passed out of committee in June but has not been scheduled for a floor vote.
The Congressional Budget Office projected implementation would cost $84.9 billion over the first four years after passage and $281.5 billion over the first 10 years — figures that raised red flags for some GOP members on the committee.
“I remain committed to finding a way to support toxic-exposed veterans in a way that is fiscally responsible for future generations,” said ranking member Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), who said he wanted to be “mindful” about spending money on veterans’ behalf. “I believe we can do that. Speaking as a veteran myself, I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) pushed back on price tag concerns, noting that all but one of the committee’s Republicans voted in support of the $25 billion increase for the Department of Defense budget in December. Slotkin said she would expect the “same scrutiny” from committee members when legislating in support of veterans.
Should the legislation become law, the extra steps required to prove certain medical conditions are associated with military service would be eliminated for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers. Instead, the conditions would become presumptive, meaning the VA would just assume the medical issues arose because of military exposure. For many veterans advocates, this is the key to improving health care coverage for toxic exposed veterans.
“We may have differing opinions about how the end product should look regarding toxic exposure presumptions,” said Patrick Murray, the national legislative service director of Veterans of Foreign Wars. “But the one thing I believe we can all agree on is broken and it’s not helping veterans to the fullest extent. We need to do something to fix it.”