Lawmakers introduce bill to require VA track all veterans exposed to toxic burn pits

Abbie Bennett
June 02, 2020 - 1:28 pm
BurnPits2

Photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter

Lawmakers this week introduced a bill that would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to document, track and notify Congress of all cases of burn pit exposure reported by veterans.

Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, introduced the bipartisan Sfc. Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act, which they say aims to help burn pit-exposed vets who often have difficulty with VA claims because records of burn pit exposure during military service are often incomplete or nonexistent. 

The legislation is named for Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, an Ohio Army National Guard soldier who died last month at 39 after a three-year battle with lung cancer, which he and his family believed was caused by his exposure to burn pits during his Middle East deployment. 

“Heath may have died but his legacy will continue through his deeds and sacrifices," said Danielle Robinson, Heath's wife. "He is a man who, after fighting for his country in Iraq and returning safely from a war zone, ended up fighting the battle of his life against the war that followed him home. Heath is at peace knowing his resolve to help other burn pit veterans will continue and it's an honor to have the Sfc. Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act named after him,." 

“There’s no doubt that burn pits are the Agent Orange of our generation. Service members that were exposed in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeing horrible health effects and are dying as a result,” Mast said in a statement Tuesday. “We’ve made progress, but much more must be done, which is why we need this bill to track exposure to burn pits so exposed veterans can get the care they need.” 

The legislation builds on a previous bill Mast and Gabbard partnered on, the Burn Pits Accountability act, which passed as part of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act in December. 

But the current VA burn pit registry is voluntary, and "many are unaware of it," the lawmakers said. The new bill aims to "close that gap" by making sure that all veterans who discuss their exposure with their doctors are aware of the registry and their chance to be added to it. 

VA estimates as many as 3.5 million veterans and service members are eligible for their burn pit and airborne toxic exposure registry. As of last month, more than 204,000 veterans and troops had added their names to the list. 

The bill would: 

  • Require VA secretary to document each veteran who may have been exposed to burn pits and notify Congress of the cases four times per year;
  • Require VA submit a biannual report to Congress of how many veterans say they were exposed, how many made disability claims, what the outcomes of those claims were, a list of conditions those veterans have and the locations of the burn pits;
  • Require healthcare providers inform veterans who mention burn pits about the registries so they know about them and can register. 

“Millions of our brothers and sisters in uniform have been exposed to the toxic chemicals released from toxic burn pits and are suffering and dying without treatment. This is an egregious failure of our nation to those who serve. It is too late for some, but more are suffering and more need help. While there has been some progress on this front in the Defense Department and VA, more must be done,” Gabbard said. “Our veterans deserve care, compensation, and disability benefits. Every day we lose more of our brothers and sisters, like Heath, to the toxic scars they endured as part of their service to and sacrifice for our nation. This is the Agent Orange of our post-9/11 generation and we can’t be slow to act in the same way our nation failed our Vietnam veterans. They deserve better. Their families deserve better. Congress must pass this bill today.”

Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

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For information on how to add yourself to VA's burn pit and airborne hazard registry, click here.

Need help with toxic exposure? Click here for a list of resources and information on VA and Defense Department registries.

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Read the Connecting Vets Toxic Inferno series:

Are you a veteran, family member or VA employee dealing with the coronavirus? Contact Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. For secure communications, email abbierbennett@protonmail.com

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