On Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., continues to focus on how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) handles the cases of veterans exposed to burn pits.
Back in 2019, Mast and then U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hi., brought back a proposal having the federal government evaluate veterans and active-duty personnel who might have been exposed to open burn pits and airborne chemicals. Over the past three decades, more than 140,000 servicemembers and veterans have reported exposure to burn pits and toxic chemicals.
In 2018 with the support of Gabbard, Mast introduced the “Burn Pits Accountability Act” which they also introduced in 2019. The proposal had the U.S. Defense Department list servicemembers who could have been exposed to open burn pits or airborne toxins, enrolling them in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. It also ensured the Defense Department and the VA share information about burn pit and airborne toxin exposure. The bill was brought into last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
At the end of spring 2020, Gabbard introduced the “SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act” with Mast as the main cosponsor. According to Mast’s office, the bill “would require the VA to document, track, notify Congress of all cases of burn pit exposure reported by veterans to the VA.” U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, championed the proposal in the U.S. Senate but the bill did not reach the finish line.
Last week, with Gabbard now out of Congress, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, took over the bill with Mast as the main co-sponsor.
“I was proud to introduce the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act today,” Ryan said. “The bill is named in honor of an Ohio Army National Guard Soldier frequently exposed to burn pits who died last year at only 39 after waging a three-year battle against lung cancer. The VA can and must do better in identifying and supporting veterans exposed to burn pits as well as providing them the care and benefits they have earned and so deeply deserve.”
“When I was serving in Afghanistan, trash and human waste were often burned in open air pits. These burn pits are emerging as the Agent Orange of my generation. Service members that were exposed in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeing horrible health effects and are dying as a result,” Mast said. “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 bill was sent to the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee last week. Brown and Portman continue to push the legislation in the Senate.
Mast showcased the bill this week.
“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 noted. “That’s why I just helped introduce a bipartisan bill, the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act. This legislation would require the VA to document, track and notify Congress of all cases of burn pit exposure reported by veterans to the VA. Plus, the bill requires the VA to notify potentially exposed veterans of the tools available to them to get help.
“This legislation builds on the progress we made with the Burn Pits Accountability Act, which was signed into law in December 2019. I’m hopeful that this bill will help us close the information gap so that all veterans are aware of the registry and their opportunity to be included,” Mast added.
Reach Kevin Derby at firstname.lastname@example.org.