Congressmen Tim Bishop (D-NY) and Congresswoman Diana DeGette (D-CO) were joined by representatives from veteran advocacy groups, physicians and family members of veterans today to announce new bipartisan legislation to address the health crisis among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were exposed to open-air burn pits and other airborne hazards during their service overseas. Original cosponsors of the legislation also include Congressmen Walter Jones (R-NC) and Jim Cooper (D-TN).
The “Helping Veterans Exposed to Toxic Chemicals Act” (H.R. 2510) will establish three Centers of Excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions related to open burn pit and other environmental exposures. Thousands of veterans have returned home after serving overseas with myriad illnesses ranging from asthma and other respiratory afflictions to serious gastrointestinal disorders. While the precise number of veterans affected is not currently known, it is estimated that tens of thousands might be suffering due to their exposure overseas. The Centers of Excellence will have access to and make use of the data collected by Department of Defense and the Veterans Affairs for the burn pits registry that was created by law in 2012.
The Centers of Excellence for the study of exposure-related illnesses will be jointly administered by VA and DoD in a framework similar to the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Traumatic Brain Injury. The locations of the three Centers of Excellence will be selected through a competitive application process to ensure the highest quality of study and care. Qualified institutions must have a proven track record of post-deployment health exposures among veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and meet other requirements in order to be considered. The legislation authorizes an appropriation of $30 million in each fiscal year from 2014 through 2019 to establish and operate the three Centers.
The “Helping Veterans Exposed to Toxic Chemicals Act” has been endorsed by IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America), The Sergeant Sullivan Center and BurnPits360. The full text of the legislation is available here.
Bishop began work on the burn pits issue in 2007 after an Army nurse whose father was a member of the Congressman’s Veterans Advisory Board alerted Bishop to an increase in respiratory illnesses that she believed might be linked to exposure to fumes from open-air fires used on overseas military bases to incinerate tires, munitions, medical waste and other potentially hazardous waste. He was a leader in the bipartisan effort in Congress to end the military’s reliance on burn pits and sharply curtail their use, and has also successfully advocated for the Department of Veterans Affairs to proactively identify service members who may have been exposed to toxic fumes during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan so their health can be monitored and treated using best practices.
“America’s painful experience with Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndromes requires a proactive, comprehensive response to this clear health crisis among veterans exposed to burn pits during their service in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Bishop said. “Establishing Centers of Excellence to develop innovative treatments of the illnesses caused by toxic exposure and prevent them from occurring in the future is a vital effort on behalf of our brave service members and their families. I appreciate the support for this legislation on both sides of the aisle and among the dedicated groups who stand up on behalf of our veterans,” the Congressman added.
“Far too many of our brave men and women in uniform are returning home only to find themselves facing debilitating or life-threatening lung conditions after being exposed to airborne hazards and toxins overseas,” DeGette said. “This legislation will go a long way towards helping America’s service members suffering from respiratory afflictions ultimately gain access to the medical treatments they need, from some of our nation’s top medical research institutions. I’m proud that National Jewish in Denver has one of the first programs in the nation to address deployment-related lung disease and that our community’s returning service men and women have such a great hospital nearby to help them.”
“It is absolutely necessary to enact legislation that will ensure we are well-prepared to care for our returning veterans who have been exposed to open burn pits,” Jones said. “After all that they have sacrificed for us, we owe it to them to provide access to the highest-quality resources so that they can fully heal from their injuries.”
“These centers are desperately needed for our military heroes who have been exposed to toxic fumes during their service. It’s our duty to understand their health conditions, provide the best treatment and implement preventive measures for the future,” Cooper said.
“Veterans of previous generations struggled for years to have conditions such as Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome recognized as service-connected. We cannot repeat this same pattern with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans,” IAVA Chief Policy Officer Tom Tarantino explained. “Establishing Centers of Excellence to treat the health conditions due to burn pit exposure is the first step to getting our veterans proper care. IAVA thanks Representatives Bishop for his leadership on this important issue, and urges Congress to move swiftly to pass this legislation.”