Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming increasingly concerned that exposure to toxins produced by burn pits during deployments will mirror the experiences of veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. In an effort to help address these concerns, earlier this year Congress passed the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act. This Act marks the first major step by Congress to research how burn pits affected veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, while this legislation is another step forward in helping veterans suffering from exposure to burn pits, a true solution for burn pit exposure is most likely still years away.
THE HELPING VETERANS EXPOSED TO BURN PITS ACT
Responding to the increasing concern regarding how exposure to burn pits is affecting veterans, this September, Congress passed the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act. The Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act is the second piece of legislation Congress has passed to help veterans suffering from the effects of burn pit exposure, but the first piece of legislation that may finally provide answers regarding what conditions are caused by burn pit exposure.
In 2013, Congress required the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to establish the Burn Pit Registry to identify health conditions possibly related to burn pit exposure. While the Burn Pit Registry provided data for use in research it did not provide funding to carry out research regarding the data collected from the Burn Pit Registry.
The 2018 Act seeks to fill that gap in two ways. First, it requires the VA to create an official center to research the effects of exposure to burn pits. The new law requires that the research center perform development and testing for treatments of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits, as well as study both the short-term and long-term effects of exposure. Further, the research center is also purposed with the goal of providing medical treatment to veterans diagnosed with medical conditions believed to be related to exposure. Second, in addition to requiring the VA to establish a research and treatment center, the Act also provides 4.1 million dollars of funding for research for the next five years and allows the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide additional funding if necessary.
The creation of the research center and five-year funding plan is intended to advance efforts to provide the answers needed to change the VA’s current position that effects from burn pit exposure are temporary and resolve once exposure ends. However, while the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act is another step in the right direction, greater assistance for veterans suffering from exposure is most likely still years away.
RELIEF FOR VETERANS SUFFERING FROM EXPOSURE TO BURN PITS IS MOST LIKELY STILL YEARS AWAY
While the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act provides the resources necessary for the VA to begin seeking the medical links between exposure to burn pits and resulting medical conditions, it appears that the VA is still far away from providing a solution for veterans suffering from burn pit exposure outside of the normal claims process. Significantly, although the Act provides the VA with the resources necessary to begin research, it does not impose any deadlines or requirements as to when VA must issue its findings or reports. The earliest date that VA is expected to provide its findings concerning the effects of burn pit exposure will be in eitherlate 2019 or early 2020, when the VA and the National Academy of Medicine are scheduled to release their joint study concerning the health effects of burn pits.
In addition to the lack of required deadlines, the VA’s handling of the Burn Pit Registry and the ongoing disputes concerning treatment of disability claims related to Agent Orange exposure further suggests that a solution for burn pit exposure remains years away. As previously mentioned, Congress required the establishment of the Burn Pit Registry in 2013. After 5 years of gathering data, VA still maintains its position that the effects of exposure to burn pits are temporary.
In addition to the Burn Pit Registry, handling of Agent Orange exposure also suggests that a solution is still far away. In 1979, four years after the Vietnam War ended, Congress passed the Veterans Health Programs Extension and Improvement Act of 1979 to research the effects of herbicide exposure. However, it was not until 1991 -- twelve years later, and only after veterans filed a class action lawsuit against VA -- that Congress passed the Agent Orange Bill. This law established the presumption that veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange and developed a recognized condition could receive benefits on a presumptive basis.
Both of these examples unfortunately suggest that a solution for veterans suffering from burn pit exposure is still going to take a significant amount of time.
WHAT CAN VETERANS SUFFERING FROM BURN PIT EXPOSURE DO NOW?
Although the VA is most likely still years away from offering specific solutions for veterans suffering from burn pit exposure, such as presumptive service connection, there are still options available. First, veterans may still apply for assistance and disability benefits through the VA’s standard application process. Second, Veterans who believe they are suffering from a condition caused by burn pit exposure should seek medical treatment through either the VA or private physicians. Third, although imperfect, veterans should still consider participating in the Burn Pit Registry. Hopefully, the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act will ease the requirements for veterans seeking assistance, but until then veterans will still need to continue to file for assistance under the traditional claims process.
This article is authored through the collaborative efforts of Jonathan Heiden, Travis James West and other legal professionals at West & Dunn, a law firm dedicated to providing high quality legal services to individuals and businesses, with a particular focus on assisting veterans of the United States Armed Forces. It is a follow-up to Mr. Heiden’s April 23, 2018 article regarding burn pit claims following the Landry decision, and was originally published by News Rep on November 27, 2018.