WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is adding nine rare respiratory cancers linked to burn pit exposure to the list of illnesses eligible for disability and health benefits.
President Joe Biden, who has said his son Beau Biden’s exposure to toxic fumes from the pits could have led to his death, announced the policy change Monday, saying in a statement he hopes to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.
“We learned a horrible lesson after Vietnam, when the harmful effects of exposure to Agent Orange sometimes took years to manifest, and too many veterans were left unable to access the care they needed,” Biden said. “I refuse to repeat that mistake when it comes to the veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The VA said Monday that it will begin processing disability compensation claims for former U.S. military members who were in Southwest Asia from Aug. 2, 1990, to the present or in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria, or Uzbekistan from Sept. 19, 2001, to the present.
The cancers include squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx, squamous cell carcinoma of the trachea, adenocarcinoma of the trachea, salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea, adenosquamous carcinoma of the lung, large cell carcinoma of the lung, salivary gland-type tumors of the lung, sarcomatoid carcinoma of the lung and typical and atypical carcinoid of the lung.
The VA said it plans to contact veterans who fall under the new rule, which will be published on Tuesday, or survivors, to tell them how to apply for benefits.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement the change in policy will ensure “veterans who suffer from these rare respiratory cancers will finally get” the health care and benefits they “deserve, without having to prove causality between their service and their condition.”
The VA said “a focused review of scientific and medical evidence” determined that “there is biological plausibility between airborne hazards and carcinogenesis of the respiratory tract — and the unique circumstances of these rare cancers warrant a presumption of service connection.”
Biden originally announced the VA would add nine cancers to the eligibility list during his State of the Union address in March.
At the time, Biden said burn pits — which incinerated medical and hazard material, jet fuel and other substances — were one of the many dangers U.S. soldiers faced during deployments.
“When they came home, many of the world’s fittest and best trained warriors were never the same,” Biden said during his speech. “Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin.”
Biden, in his State of the Union address and his statement Monday, called on Congress to “pass bipartisan legislation to comprehensively address toxic exposures and further deliver the vital benefits our veterans have earned.”
The U.S. Senate unanimously approved a bipartisan bill from Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Kansas GOP Sen. Jerry Moran in mid-February that is the first of three pieces of legislation meant to address health care needs linked to burn pits.
When announcing the $1 billion legislation in early February, Moran said that 3.5 million combat veterans have experienced some level of toxic exposure since 9/11.
“This is the first step on a continuum of trying to make certain that those who experienced toxic exposure, and as a result are suffering in their health and well-being, receive medical benefits,” Moran said at the time.
That legislation, referred to as the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics or PACT Act, would cost about $280 billion during the next decade.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said during floor debate the legislation would “expand veterans’ health care access and benefits to address the effects of these toxic exposures that occurred during their military service.
“We asked our veterans to go to battle for America, and they answered that call. When they return home, veterans should not have to go to battle against red tape to receive the medical treatment and benefits they have earned through their service.”