WASHINGTON, D.C. — On his first Veterans Day in office, President Joe Biden announced several actions his administration is taking to support veterans and service members who may have encountered environmental hazards, like burn pits, while overseas.
As concerns about burn pits and other exposures continue to mount, the administration says many veterans are without access to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and high-quality treatments to address health conditions due to gaps and delays in the scientific evidence demonstrating conclusive links between known exposures and health impacts.
The federal government has taken some steps to address these issues, like implementing registries to track veterans exposed to potentially hazardous substances. However, the White House says it’s committing to doing more.
The administration says the VA has developed a new model for establishing service connections, since it can be difficult for veterans to prove how disabilities resulted from environmental hazards. Officials say the model will accelerate the decision-making process to consider adding new presumptive conditions, taking different information into consideration.
“The new model relies upon a multi-faceted scale to evaluate the strength of scientific and other evidence and allow VA to make faster policy decisions on key exposures,” the White House said.
New presumptive conditions have also been added. In August, officials say the VA began processing disability claims for asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis based on presumed exposure to particulate matter.
“Veterans who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations and other areas and who developed these conditions within 10 years of military service are now eligible to apply for disability benefits and access to VA health care,” wrote the White House.
The VA’s new model is also being applied to review evidence of service connections for rare respiratory cancers and constrictive bronchiolitis.
“The president has directed VA to complete the review of rare cancers and provide recommendations about new presumptions of service connection within 90 days,” said the White House. “Based on the results of this review, the administration will consider initiating additional rulemaking.”
To improve data on individual exposures, the Department of Defense plans to expand and accelerate the development schedule of the Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record (ILER), which was scheduled to reach full operating capability in September 2023. The department also plans to add additional data to track, record, and assess exposures.
The administration says it’s also working to raise awareness of VA benefits related to military exposures. In October, the VA launched an outreach campaign to inform service members and veterans about eligibility and benefits related to chronic disabilities that may be due to military exposures while in service. The VA will also initiate new public service announcements and live events to encourage early and regular engagement with federal agencies for benefits, health care, and other services.
The administration says VA and non-VA providers are also being trained to understand and treat veterans’ exposure concerns. The VA has completed a contract with the American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM) to provide a five-module certificate training program in military environmental exposures.
“This will provide a basic level of competence for all VA- and non-VA providers across the nation that will help better treat veterans with concerns about toxic exposures,” wrote the White House. “(The) VA will require all providers to complete the first module of this training for an entry-level understanding of the health outcomes of military exposures and encourage the remaining four modules for certification.”
Officials say a network of specialized providers and a call center for veterans will also be established in 2022. Through VET-HOME, veterans with questions about environmental exposures will call into a central location and be guided through the registry exam or environmental exposure process. They would then be referred to an environmental health provider.
Lastly, the administration says it’s hoping to extend the eligibility period for VA health care since some veterans don’t have concerns until several years after deployment or leaving service.
“At present, VA allows veterans to receive free VA health care for up to 5 years after discharge or release for any condition related to service in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Operation New Dawn (OND) in Iraq,” wrote the White House.
The administration is calling on Congress to implement a change to the statute to enable a longer enhanced enrollment period for the 3 million veterans who deployed to support recent combat operations.