More than 3.5 million veterans exposed to hearthstones and other toxins while serving overseas will be eligible for health care and benefits under a bipartisan bill signed into law on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden has signed legislation to give veterans suffering from respiratory illnesses and cancers from toxins they encountered in war zones access to necessary medical care. This historic bill is the culmination of years of work by veterans groups who say it is long overdue.
The bill is named after Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, an Ohio National Guard soldier who was deployed to Kosovo and Iraq and died in 2020. During an event in Washington, DC, on Tuesday in support of the legislation, Susan Zeier, Robinson’s mother-in-law, described the ordeal her family endured.
Dressed in a military jacket with the name “Robinson” stitched on, Zeier described how her son-in-law was diagnosed in 2017 with stage four lung cancer, which her oncologist said was rare and could only be caused by prolonged toxic exposure. It was then, says Zeier, that she learned what a fire pit was.
A burn pit is an open trench where waste is burned and was a common disposal method at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Pits were used to dispose of chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, ammunition, and other potentially hazardous materials. In 2014, the VA established a registry in response to concerns about respiratory illnesses potentially caused by exposure to fireplaces.
“A month before his cancer diagnosis, we learned that he had a rare autoimmune mucosal disease that was causing him recurrent gushing nosebleeds and bleeding from the ears,” Zeier said. “Needless to say, he spent his last three years on earth fighting the war that followed him back home.”
Caring for him became a physically and emotionally draining “around-the-clock ordeal”, and she said he had to move into his home to help her with his spontaneous, gushing nosebleeds while vomiting, rendering him unable to keep the oxygen tube in his nose. .
Zeier said Heath Robinson’s wife, Danielle Robinson, applied for VA caregiver benefits, but her application was denied after he was unable to prove that burns or other related trauma in battle had caused his illness.
Veterans’ groups said tens of thousands of other service members had had experiences similar to Robinson’s. The issue has gained traction in recent years, and President Joe Biden referred to hotspots in his State of the Union address in March.
“We owe it to our veterans and their families to deal with these consequences comprehensively,” the White House said in a statement Tuesday supporting the legislation. “Unfortunately, it has taken decades to understand the dangerous effects of harmful environmental exposures, leaving too many veterans without the benefits and services they need and deserve.”
The legislation adds 23 combustion sources and conditions related to toxic exposure to a list of presumed service-related conditions. It establishes 31 new VA health care facilities, expands health care eligibility for post-9/11 veterans, while improving screening for toxic-related illnesses.
“This is long overdue legislation,” Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said at the event on Tuesday. “Because quite honestly, it’s hotbeds today. Yesterday was Agent Orange.”
But it will have a cost. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill will cost $278.5 billion over 10 years, about $40 billion less than a version passed by the House earlier.
Newsweek contacted Tester’s office for comment.