(U.S. Senate) – Chairman Jon Tester of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is unveiling sweeping legislation today to provide generations of veterans suffering from toxic exposures their due benefits and care for the first time in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) history. This legislation will be considered tomorrow during a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee markup.
A longtime fighter for the expansion of care and benefits for toxic exposure veterans, Tester’s Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops (COST) of War Act of 2021 recognizes the federal government’s responsibility to provide health care and disability compensation to veterans fighting the effects of toxic exposure connected to their military service. This legislation would allow all veterans who were at risk of toxic exposure, including 3.5 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, to obtain immediate and lifelong access to health care from VA. It would also establish a new science-based and veteran-focused process for the establishment of new presumptive conditions, and would provide benefits to thousands of toxic exposure veterans who have been long-ignored or forgotten, including Agent Orange veterans suffering from hypertension.
“Providing health care and benefits to veterans suffering from the effects of toxic exposure is a cost of war that must be paid,” said Tester. “It’s clear that we need to establish a process that is veteran-focused, consistent, and science-based. In one of the largest expansions of VA health care ever seen, my COST of War Act includes bipartisan ideas from veterans and advocates to provide all generations of toxic exposure veterans—no matter their age or which war they served in—their earned benefits and care. The bottom line is that it’s time for Congress to settle its debts for the men and women who stood in harm’s way to serve this country.”
Among its many provisions, the COST of War Act of 2021 will:
- Ensure that toxic exposure veterans get immediate and lifelong access to VA health care, including up to 3.5 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans;
- Establish a consistent, transparent framework based on medical and scientific evidence to drive the establishment of new presumptions of service connection between a condition and a toxic exposure;
- Reduce the burden on toxic exposure veterans claiming a direct service connection without a presumption, by requiring VA to examine a veteran’s military records for proof of toxic exposure and to consider whether other evidence shows such records are wrong or incomplete.
- Acknowledge that for certain toxic exposure veterans the science supports the creation of new presumptions of service connection, including Agent Orange veterans suffering from hypertension or Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance (MGUS) and Burn Pit veterans suffering from various lung-related conditions or glioblastoma;
- Focus federal research to support toxic exposure veterans and ensure that the toxic exposure framework is based on sound science;
- Strengthen VA’s toxic exposure processes from health care to disability benefits, by requiring specialized toxic exposure training for VA health care and disability claims processing personnel; and
- Guarantee toxic exposures are accurately recorded before veterans seek VA health care and benefits, by requiring an independent study on the Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record.
National and Montana Veterans Service Organizations applauded Tester’s historic and comprehensive effort to pay the cost of war.
“For too long we have failed to fully honor our commitment to the men and women suffering from adverse health consequences of toxic exposures during their service,” said former Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin, M.D. “Efforts to address these issues have fallen short for decades. To continue to deny our responsibility in taking care of care these veterans is a failure in carrying out our sacred obligation. The COST of War Act of 2021 addresses these issues and sets a path forward to ensure that we will never again leave our service members to fight these battles on their own.”
“The number one legislative goal for the VFW is comprehensive toxic exposure reform for all veterans, in the past, present, and future,” said Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) National Commander Hal Roesch. “The COST of War Act of 2021 accomplishes that goal, and the VFW emphatically supports this bill. Toxic exposures affect veterans from every generation, and the time to act for legislation is now!”
“Our nation has a solemn duty to care for those suffering long-term, negative health effects from toxic exposures during their military service now and in the future,” said Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Commander Stephen “Butch” Whitehead. “DAV supports the COST of War Act of 2021 as it will address multiple generations of veterans exposed to a wide range of hazards like Agent Orange, burn pits, radiation, PFAS water contamination and the toxins at K2 and Fort McClellan. We applaud Senator Tester for his leadership in developing comprehensive toxic exposure legislation, comprised of bipartisan legislation to provide health care, concession of exposure, presumptive diseases and establish a new framework for those exposed to toxins in the future.”
“Military toxic exposure is a top priority for Wounded Warrior Project, and we applaud Senator Tester’s leadership in introducing such a comprehensive piece of legislation to address this urgent issue,” said Wounded Warrior Project Vice President of Government and Community Relations Jose Ramos. “With multiple bills introduced this year addressing the different challenges faced by veterans exposed to toxic substances while in service, the COST of War Act brings them together like pieces of a puzzle to create a lasting solution. We thank Senator Tester for his steadfast commitment to this issue and encourage members of the U.S. Senate to join him by supporting this landmark legislation. The time to act is now.”
“MOAA supports the Senate’s omnibus comprehensive toxic exposure reform bill, the COST of War Act of 2021,” said President and CEO of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) Lieutenant General Dana Atkins. “We are encouraged to see provisions promoting an evidence-based approach to identifying presumptive conditions such as in the TEAM Act, conceding exposure where burn pits were used through Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act, adding Agent Orange presumptives for hypertension and MGUS, recognizing radiation exposure in the Enewetak Atoll and from the Palomares, Spain accident, and improving studies and epidemiological reporting for all exposures. We look forward to working with Congress in applying the presumptive process standards for provisions in the bill not currently founded on scientific evidence.”
“While TREA joined the fight nearly two years ago, reaching this milestone seemed to be an insurmountable challenge, a steep uphill battle even,” said President of The Enlisted Association (TREA) Justin Jump. “TREA is proud of the collaborative efforts with fellow veteran service organizations, subject matter experts, and congressional staff to reach this point. We made a promise to care for those who serve our country. It’s time to honor it.”
“The COST of War Act 2021 is a long-awaited and comprehensive military toxic exposure bill that will go further than any bill before it in delivering critical relief to our nation’s suffering veterans,” said Department of Montana VFW Adjutant Timothy Peters. “The Department of Montana VFW’s top priority is ensuring those living with service-connected exposures get the benefits they earned. The COST of War Act will expand access to health care and disability compensation benefits to those who fought for our nation, and now fight the negative health effects of their exposure to toxic substances during their service. The Department of Montana VFW thanks Chairman Tester for his continued leadership on the issue of toxic exposure, and for introducing this historic bill.”
“This bill cuts through layers of red tape to allow veterans to get the care they need from illness due to exposure to toxic substances while serving overseas,” said Montana Department of the American Legion Commander Jeff Nelson. “The bill accomplishes a longstanding goal of our American Legion, to expand eligibility for VA healthcare benefits by creating a new presumption of service connection for thousands of toxic exposure veterans who have been long ignored or forgotten.”
“The COST of War Act 2021 is long-overdue and rightly recognizes the effects toxic chemicals have had on our military personnel and family members; with that, it is highly endorsed by the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1087,” said Northwest Montana Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1087. “We are extremely hopeful this act will pass Congress as written and will be signed into law by the President of the United States. Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another. The United States of America must always take care of Her Veterans who loyally serve and protect our freedoms.”
“For far too long, Congress, VA, and the Defense Department have failed to understand the result of generations’ of veterans who have been impacted by their toxic exposure,” said the Veteran Coalition of North West Montana President Michael F. Shepard. “The COST of War Act of 2021 will address this issue once and for all, delivering comprehensive relief to all veterans suffering from Agent Orange and Burn Pits. We are supportive of Chairman Tester’s effort to get the job done, and get it done right, on behalf of those who fought and sacrificed on our behalf.”
Text of the COST of War Act of 2021 can be found HERE.
A one-pager on the bill can be found HERE.