Representative Gus Bilirakis, who serves as Vice-Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has introduced the Protection for Veterans Burn Pit Exposure Act of 2018 (HR 6582). He is joined in this bi-partisan effort by Representative Raul Ruiz, a physician and public health expert by trade. Additionally, Representatives Peter Welch and David Young are original co-sponsors of this important legislation. This bill seeks to remedy an injustice that is keeping sick Veterans from being able to access the medical care and disability compensation benefits to which they should be entitled. It is a widely known fact that Veterans serving in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom were exposed to toxic chemicals in burn pits during their deployments. Many of these Veterans are now battling a wide range of diseases, some of which have proven fatal. Congressman Bilirakis will be hosting a press conference to discuss this legislation. He will be joined by local Veterans who were exposed to burn pit toxins. They will share their stories and discuss how this bill will help them. The press conference will be held Wednesday, August 1, 2018 at 10:30 a.m. at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, which is located on St. Petersburg College's Tarpon Springs Campus (600 E. Klosterman Road, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689). Please RSVP your attendance at 727-232-2921.
One of the criteria for the VA to provide medical care and disability benefits is a Veteran proving that his/her condition is directly related to military service. Currently, the VA does not recognize toxic burn pit exposure as a contributing factor to the development of the illnesses these Veterans are facing. The VA has begun a database of exposed Veterans in order to study whether or not there is a causal link between exposure and certain illnesses; however, its plan does little to help Veterans who are suffering now. This critical legislation will provide a presumption of service-connection for exposure to toxic burn pits, which will enable the Veterans battling illness to immediately access VA medical care and disability benefits. "It is not a coincidence that so many of the exposed Veterans are all suffering from the same diseases. We saw similar patterns with Veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange in earlier wars. Sadly, many of those Veterans died while the VA took decades to study the issue. Burn pit toxin exposure is the Agent Orange of this generation. It is a moral imperative that we learn from the mistakes in the way Agent Orange was handled. These Veterans are suffering and they don't have time to wait any longer. We can't change the fact that they were exposed and are sick, but we have the power to get them the help they need. Too often we see bureaucracy get in the way of doing the right thing for our heroes; this can't be one of those times. I will not stop fighting on their behalf until they get the benefits and medical treatment they deserve," said Congressman Bilirakis.
"Our government has a responsibility to provide veterans and servicemembers exposed to burn pits with the care and benefits they need now, not 20 years from now," said Dr. Ruiz. "I am proud to co-lead this bipartisan bill with Rep. Bilirakis because it will force the VA to take action sooner rather than later, and ensure those who are developing serious illnesses from their exposure to burn pits get the care they have earned. We cannot and must not repeat the inaction we saw with Agent Orange."
The bill also establishes the Open Burn Pit Advisory Commission, an independent body which will be tasked with gathering the medical and scientific data necessary to make recommendations on the association of diseases connected to toxic exposure. The Commission will be comprised of 15 Members with distinguished backgrounds in medical, scientific, and epidemiological research, the majority of which would be required to be Veterans or have expertise in military and Veteran health care.
This spring, I met with a group of brave Vermont National Guard members who were exposed to burn pits during their service and are suffering from negative health effects as a result. They should be entitled to VA presumptive service connected disability compensation. We must fulfil our most solemn obligation to our veterans by doing everything in our power to support their health and avoid another tragic situation like Agent Orange. Time is of the essence," said Representative Welch.