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66,000 Montana veterans exposed to toxins could receive assistance from a new bill

Congressional bargainers are celebrating a deal they say could pave the way for passage of legislation that would help millions of veterans exposed to toxins during their time in the military.

The military routinely disposed of tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials in open burn pits. Veterans who inhaled pollutants from these pits and fell ill had to prove the burning was responsible. This was a difficult, if not impossible, burden of proof to meet.

The bipartisan congressional deal would increase health care services and disability benefits for generations of veterans exposed to toxins, and won’t come cheaply. If passed, U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Jon Tester estimates the deal’s 10-year price tag could run anywhere from $100 billion to $500 billion.

The Montana Democrat acknowledges the expense of the deal, but adds that “Right now our veterans are the only ones paying that cost and they can’t wait any longer. We need to pay the cost of war.”

Approximately 66,000 people — two-thirds of Montana’s 99,646 veterans — were likely exposed to toxic substances during their service, according to data from the VA.

Under the proposal, 23 illnesses, including hypertension, would be presumed related to burn pit exposure when it comes to providing disability compensation.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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