May 27 (UPI) — A pair of bills seeking to expand Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare to service members exposed to toxic substances in Iraq and Afghanistan were introduced by lawmakers Wednesday.
The legislative package known as the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT Act, would provide healthcare and benefits to as many as 3.5 million veterans believed to have been exposed to toxic material from open-air burn pits.
Former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who has previously advocated for healthcare for 9/11 first responders, said inaction Veterans Affairs and skepticism surrounding the cause of the illnesses have left many veterans without care.
“These individuals who volunteered to fight in these wars are now fighting their own government,” Stewart said at a press conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
Veterans Affairs found that nearly 16,000 claims made by veterans of recent wars included words such as “burn pit” but about 60% were denied for reasons including lack of medical diagnosis and a lack of evidence linking the health conditions to their service.
Chairman of the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who introduced the legislation, said “it’s clear VA’s process hasn’t been working.”
The measure would have Veterans Affairs presume that war veterans were exposed to burn pits if they develop any of 23 cancers or respiratory illnesses after being deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries where U.S. troops are housed.
Reports have shown that a large burn pit in Iraq that was used continuously for years at one point burned 147 tons of waste per day.
Stewart cited recent Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs reports listing illnesses that could befall service members due to the burn pits.
“I just want to make sure everybody understands — this is not a surprise to the United States government,” he said. “Attached to that list are all the different toxins that they knew everybody was being exposed to in 2010. The EPA has internal documents — ‘this is why we can’t do burn pits in the United States, these are the toxins, this is how it’s going to go.'”