U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, hosted a roundtable discussion on Friday in Bowling Green with local veterans, promoting signups for health care benefits recently enacted to help those who have been harmed by exposure to toxic burn pits.
Brown is working with Ohio veterans, their families and advocates to bring additional attention to provisions in the PACT Act so veterans can get care.
“We want every veteran in Ohio, who is potentially eligible, or eligible for this, who may or may not get sick, to sign up. It will make a huge difference. Any soldier, any active duty, any guardsperson, who was exposed to these burn pits in Iraq or Afghanistan, or beyond that, exposed to these toxic fumes, which could lead to serious illness or death, that they absolutely should get this benefit,” Brown said.
The PACT Act was signed by President Joe Biden Aug. 10. It expands VA benefits for to cover exposure to burn pits and other toxic substances.
The small group of local officials, including representatives from Bowling Green State University and Owens Community College, Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn and Bowling Green Mayor Mike Aspacher, met at the VFW Post 1148/American Legion Post 45, with local veterans.
“This bill is probably three decades late, but it is passed and it is going to help a lot of veterans now. The problem now is getting the correct information out to the veteran community, and not just to the veterans themselves, but to their wives and their kids,” Tim Hauser, Air Force veteran and burn pit advocate, said. “Even if the veteran has passed away, their spouses and their children can benefit from the passage of this bill. The other thing is, I’m trying to get this information out to the homeless veterans.”
Dione Somerville, president of Owens Community College, said they have communication methods in place to reach veterans.
“With students, we can do the outreach, so they can know about their educational benefits,” Somerville said.
Wasylyshyn complimented the new legislation.
“Yes, we have a lot of veterans that work in our office and we will do our part to encourage our employees, who are veterans, to get in touch with you and sign up for this benefit,” he said. “The challenge we have is with the jail, and this is a national issue, is there is a shame when a veteran gets arrested. He, or she, does not want to admit they that he, or she, is a veteran.
“They feel they have let people down. So that is something we will work on, because we do ask that,” Wasylyshyn said.
The coverage of the bill is extensive, with discussions also covering the history and expansion of the bill, which Hauser said ultimately included Gulf War veterans and other little-acknowledged groups.
“We are seeing the uptick in our office volume already. So we know the impact it will have for generations of veterans exposed to radiation, to tactical herbicides in Vietnam and Guam, like Tim said, the list is big,“ said Zach Migura, executive director of the Wood County Veteran Service Office. “It’s going to take a community to get this done.”
Hauser and Migura said that the estimated coverage will cost $228 billion over 10 years.
“It’s expensive, but it’s up to us to come up with the money. Maybe it means cutting something else,” Brown said. “There was a big tax cut five years ago. It happened that major corporations got huge tax cuts. I would think, we should restore some of them to pay for this.”
Gulf War mobile hospital medic Kurt Rife is appreciative of the new benefit. He has neurological problems associated with chemical exposures while working as a supply clerk.
“To this point, no one has wanted to take ownership of it,” Rife said of the difficulty he has had in getting health care coverage for the problem.
“Where doctors were saying ‘We don’t know. We don’t know.’ This bill takes that completely out,” Hauser said. “No longer is he going to have to prove his illnesses were caused by that.”
Mental health, addiction, homelessness and other stigmas among veterans were all topics discussed.
The official name of the PACT Act is the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022.