The Biden administration said Thursday it is establishing a new policy for U.S. veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits during their service overseas.
The goal, the administration said, is to help more veterans receive benefits — especially those with constrictive bronchiolitis, lung cancers and rare respiratory cancers.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough told ABC News correspondent Stephanie Ramos the policy has been a major priority for the Biden administration since it took office.
The changes, he said, will help veterans with terminal cancer “who we can’t tell to wait.”
The Veterans Administration will now “create presumptions of exposure … when the evidence of an environmental exposure and the associated health risks are strong in the aggregate but hard to prove on an individual basis,” according to the White House.
It’s an issue close to President Joe Biden’s heart.
Biden has said he suspects his late son Beau’s exposure to burn pits in Iraq contributed to his death.
“Because of his exposure to burn pits, in my view — I can’t prove it yet — he came back with stage four glioblastoma,” Biden said in 2019. “Eighteen months he lived, knowing he was going to die.”
Biden also said that “anybody who was anywhere near those burn pits, that’s all they have to show and they get covered, they get all their health care covered.”
In August, the VA began processing claims for asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis. “Presumptive conditions” will also now include “constrictive bronchiolitis, lung cancers and rare respiratory cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx or trachea and salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea,” the White House said.
The VA is now testing this as a pilot program, a senior administration official said.
Biden has also directed the VA to provide recommendations on the new presumptive conditions within 90 days, and after that, the administration will add more health conditions and exposures, the White House said.
The administration also plans to improve its data on individual exposures and raise awareness of benefits related to military exposures — through public service announcements, live events and other outreach. A call center will be set up and a network of specialized providers will be established, according to the White House.
Moreover, veterans currently have five years after they’re discharged or released to make claims related to their service in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the Biden administration wants Congress to extend that timeline.
Retired sergeant Kevin Hensley said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the White House’s announcement.
“Official legislation hasn’t been signed, and as we all know, actions speak louder than words,” Hensley said.
Hensley served in the Air Force from 1995 to 2015, during which time he was deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan and was exposed to burn pits on four different occasions during the War on Terror.
He said he first started showing symptoms of respiratory illness in 2006, at which point a VA provider diagnosed him with asthma, but it was not until 2017 as his health deteriorated that he finally sought a second opinion from a non-VA provider and was diagnosed with his terminal condition.
Hensley added that despite Biden’s proposal, veterans like him will still have “animosity” toward the VA because of years of misleading them about the severity of their illnesses.
“Before, we were just told that what this is all in our head, and we were making this up and we had some mental health problems,” he said. “I’m hoping that the training that the VA and outside agencies receive for care actually take into consideration understand the significance and the issues that we have.”
There are several proposals currently under consideration on Capitol Hill that aim to help veterans by streamlining the process for obtaining VA benefits, including an ambitious bill backed by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Introduced earlier this year, it would vastly expand the list of conditions assumed to be linked to burn pits.
“While the administration’s steps are a positive for our nation’s veterans, I will not rest until we pass my bipartisan legislation to give presumptive coverage for all respiratory diseases and cancers resulting from toxic exposure,” Gillibrand said in a statement to ABC News.
ABC News’ Molly Nagle and Shannon Crawford contributed to this report.