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Veterans sick after toxic burn pit exposure are still struggling to get care covered

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of American veterans were exposed to toxic fumes from burn pits on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, though, the Department of Veterans Affairs still denies the vast majority of their claims for respiratory illness and rare cancers. The White House, the VA and Congress have all promised action, but it is not happening fast enough for sick veterans. That was the message that comedian-turned-advocate Jon Stewart brought to the Capitol, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The House Veterans' Affairs Committee held a virtual roundtable on the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or the PACT, Act - a bill that would cover toxic exposures from Vietnam to today. There was one person in the hearing who isn't a veteran or a politician.

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JON STEWART: Go back to your district and dig a 10-acre pit, and put everything that that town discards into that pit, and burn it with jet fuel and diesel fuel.

LAWRENCE: Comedian Jon Stewart described for lawmakers what troops were exposed to.

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STEWART: And then burn that pit 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But tell your constituents, don't worry - 15 years from now, we're going to convene a panel to discuss whether or not the health issues that you're having are in your head or not. And we're going to make you get a lawyer to prove it.

LAWRENCE: That's what Jen Burch with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said she had to do.

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JEN BURCH: It took me seven years to get my disability approved for toxic exposure. It took over six ER trips and thousands of dollars later that - I'll never get that money back. I have to be my own lawyer, my own medical adviser, my own advocate.

LAWRENCE: Vets want the VA to make these illnesses presumptive. That means a vet who gets cancer and served near a burn pit, the VA will automatically give them health care and benefits. The VA said this week that some new cancers will be made presumptive by this summer. The PACT Act would make almost all the ailments presumptive. It's got a lot of support, except when it comes to paying for it. Republican Mike Bost.

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MICHAEL BOST: Speaking as a veteran myself, veterans are taxpayers, too. We should be mindful of how we spend their money on their behalf.

LAWRENCE: Several Democrats responded that just last month, Congress packed the defense budget with an extra $25 billion the Pentagon didn't even ask for. Representative Ruben Gallego was exposed to burn pits as a Marine. He still talks like one.

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RUBEN GALLEGO: And it does piss me off that we're hearing about how we're going to pay for this. No one told me anything when I got sent to Iraq in 2005. They just told me, get on a plane and do what the country's asking for you, and we'll take care of you in return.

LAWRENCE: Bost pointed out that the estimated $300 billion price tag for the PACT Act makes it unlikely to pass in such a gridlocked Congress. Jon Stewart responded that taking care of veterans is part of the cost of war, and there's no better way to spend that money.

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STEWART: The worst case for presumption is simply this - that somewhere along the line, the VA will pay the health costs and benefit for someone who sacrificed and fought for this country for their colon cancer, and it turns out that their colon cancer wasn't necessarily caused by a burn pit. Maybe it was caused by bacon. That's your worst-case scenario.

LAWRENCE: Advocates had high hopes for the Biden administration. The president has speculated that his own son Beau Biden's fatal cancer was linked to burn pits in Iraq. So far, there's little to show, and proponents of the PACT Act kept asking questions of the famous comedian, knowing that he would probably get media coverage. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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