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Bill that would automatically cover veterans exposed to burn pits expected to pass U.S. Senate

U.S. Marines with 1st Marine Logistics Group (1st MLG) burn black water. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jason W. Fudge)

Michael “Kuma” Losoya looked out the window and tugged on his long white beard as he searched for words.

He tried to explain the smell of the burn pits at the bases where he was stationed during five tours in Iraq. The difficulty stemmed from the myriad items thrown in so they would not get off the base — fiberglass, medical needles, rubber and more, Losoya said.

“The smell in the air was so thick and the funk of it all, because you know — the blood and everything, even the feces, was thrown in,” the 50-year-old Hopewell man said last Friday at the state Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Portsmouth.

But the pits created problems beyond the stench.

“A couple years back, they started to realize people were coming back (from Iraq and Afghanistan) with upper respiratory asthma and all those other things,” he said.

Losoya was one — diagnosed in 2014 with asthma for the first time. He started having trouble breathing during his last years in the military.

To address this issue, legislators have put forward a bill, which if signed into law, would likely be the largest increase to access to the VA in a generation, according to Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia Beach.

The bill would automatically cover veterans with 23 conditions linked to being around hazardous materials, such as burn pits, with the ability to add more conditions linked to exposure to airborne toxins. The current system requires veterans to prove they were around burn pits, but that can be a difficult process, according to Luria.

She said it is important to address this issue quickly and avoid a situation faced by some Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Though most were eligible to receive coverage for health issues stemming from their exposure to the toxic herbicide, it was denied until 2019 to “blue water” veterans who served more than 12 nautical miles off the shore of Vietnam, according to the VA.

The PACT Act also include pieces of legislation led by Luria including coverage for veterans presumed to have conditions related to airborne toxins. It also includes an option for veterans to receive updates from the VA by email instead of physical mail.

Virginia’s senators — Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner — said they are not expecting major changes to the PACT Act since it has received bipartisan support throughout its journey from the House of Representatives and discussions with other senators.

The bill was sent to the Senate from the House with a 256-174 vote. On Wednesday, the legislation advanced with bipartisan support in the Senate, clearing the way for a final vote.

Kaine said his focus will be making sure the funding for the bill is mandatory, so funding for the veterans must be included in future federal budgets.

Warner said the bill is slated to cost $275 billion over 10 years. He said the funding also includes updates to the VA information technology.

“That kind of basic customer-facing service needs to improve at the VA if we’re going to give the level of care our vets deserve,” Warner said.

Luria said the implementation of the bill needs to be managed carefully to make sure veterans are able to access the expanded care.

Fellow Hampton Roads Navy veteran David Cascio, 57, has had several major procedures at the Hampton VA Medical Center over the past decade. He said he “loves” his doctor, but that she is overworked.

“I think the biggest problem in my estimation is the fact they’re stretched spread so thin as far as doctors and nurses,” he said. “Your care providers, they need more staff.”

The Hampton facility has been recommended for closure with new facilities recommended for construction in Norfolk and Newport News, according to a study released in March by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission. The bill also recommends funding $63 million for a new outpatient clinic around Hampton, according to the House version provided by Warner’s staff.

Luria said the PACT Act becoming law would have a “huge impact” for Hampton Roads, which has one of the nation’s highest concentration of veterans.

For Losoya, he filled out his forms to request coverage for his asthma and other health issues stemming from the burn pits through the VA two years ago.

And two months ago, something happened he wasn’t expecting. The VA called back and said they would start covering him for the issues. He said veterans are accustomed to sending off such forms and forgetting about them because of the extreme delays in responses.

“If you were to burn a body right in front of me, I don’t think it would phase me, which is sad,” Losoya said. “Nothing really bothers me with smell after the smoke.”


© 2022 The Virginian-Pilot

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