Veterans healthcare

Fire pit bill offers veterans health care to overcome current crisis

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Among the great injustices of recent American history is the government’s continued failure to provide care and benefits to military veterans suffering from exposure to toxic combustion fireplaces. Finally, after years of inaction, this injustice is potentially coming to an end.

When U.S. military service members voluntarily risk their lives for their country abroad, they do so knowing that they will be taken care of when they return home. However, this does not always turn out as it should.

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While serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, millions of American soldiers lived and worked near poisonous combustion sources. These pits, which the military has used for decades to dispose of everything from human waste and trash to electronics and jet fuel, have spewed out a dangerous mix of airborne particles that pose a serious risk for health.

Since their exposure, many of the more than 300,000 service members who have added their names to the Burning Hearth Registry have developed lifelong injuries and illnesses, ranging from chronic bronchitis to brain cancer – not to mention those who are still not recorded. There is no doubt that these conditions are the result of inhaled toxins.

The government has allowed the use of fire pits, so it is the government’s responsibility to take care of victims of toxic exposure. But instead of helping our veterans, the US Department of Veterans Affairs has spent years denying them the care and benefits they need and deserve.

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In the late 2000s, when medical researchers discovered the link between burn outbreaks and health problems, the VA tried to cover it up. When the connection was no longer deniable, the VA asked veterans seeking care to prove that their conditions were caused by exposure to the burn pit. This claim is unreasonable, as it is virtually impossible to prove direct causation in cases like these. The real reason for all this bureaucracy is that the federal government did not want to bear the cost of its mistakes.

We refuse to sit idly by and let the VA neglect veterans in need. So last year we introduced a bipartisan bill to address the issue. Our Assumed Benefits for Combatants Exposed to Fire Pits and Other Toxins Act would require the VA to presume that soldiers who were exposed to fire pits in the line of duty and who now suffer injuries and associated illnesses deserve government care and benefits.

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This bill helped start a movement, in Washington and across the country, to seek justice for the victims of the burns. Finally, it seems that our mission is coming to an end. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill that contains the presumption enforcement of our 2021 bill. And now, the Senate is poised to do the same by passing the bipartisan bill of Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson honoring our PACT law.

When this bill becomes law, progressive reforms will allow veterans to finally get treatment and benefits for 23 conditions related to exposure to toxic substances. The processing of VA claims will also be streamlined and more research into the health effects of toxic exposure will take place.

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This victory cannot make up for the years the veterans have spent suffering without care. However, it is still a victory and one that Americans should be proud of. For a long time, we failed to do justice to those who made great sacrifices on our behalf. No more – justice for the US military starts now. We call on our colleagues in Congress to pass this legislation without delay.

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SEN. MARCO RUBIO

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SEN. Kristen Gillibrand

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has represented New York in the US Senate since 2009 and previously served one term in the US House of Representatives.