WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Joe Biden enacted bipartisan legislation into law Wednesday that expands federal healthcare service to millions of veterans affected by toxic burn pits in combat zones.
“[It’s] a huge burden, a huge weight [lifted] off the shoulders of a lot of us veterans [and] not just for ourselves, but for our families,” Kevin Hensley said.
Hensley is an Air Force veteran from Wayne County.
The legislation adds certain respiratory diseases and cancers linked to burn pits to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ list of illnesses, easing the burden of proof veterans previously had to show in order to access care and compensation.
Hensley advocated for the legislation alongside U.S. Representatives Peter Meijer and Elissa Slotkin, who introduced provisions folded into the PACT Act.
The military used burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of waste, including hazardous materials.
However, when veterans began to experience health issues, the VA often denied their disability claims.
One report estimated the agency rejected 78 percent of applicants between 2007 and 2020.
According to Hensley, he was exposed to burn pits during four of his deployments.
When his health declined after his retirement in 2015, he said the military tried to write it off as asthma.
He pushed back, and in 2020, officials recognized his exposure to burn pits. However, the effort cost him $30,000 and he says that’s money and time not guaranteed to other people.
“They used to tell us it’s all in our head, rub some dirt on it, or get a straw and suck it up, or whatever the case may be and now there’s no plausible deniability anymore,” said Hensley. “Now you’ve got to [say], ‘Ok, you’re here. This is the condition you have and we’re here to help.’ I don’t feel like I have to give my kidney, my liver, my first born.”
The bill also includes help for veterans in other wars too, including the Vietnam War. It allows families to claim survivor’s benefits as well.
Estimates indicate burn pits affect three million veterans.
The Congressional Budget Office predicts the federal government will spend $101 billion in direct healthcare costs related to the bill.
Hensley hopes it brings a moment of support to those who served.
“Sign up for that,” said Hensley. “Start your evidence trail - Now you can take a little bit of a breath because of the presumption, but make sure you do that and get checked out. Take advantage of this.”