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NC veteran: Fight for benefits isn't over

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Congress Veterans Burn Pits

Veterans, military family members and advocates rally outside the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday in support of a bill that enhances health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to the toxic burn pits.

An Asheboro veteran says the fight for benefits is not over despite the U.S. Senate’s eventual capitulation last week in the face of veterans rallying at the Capitol to make changes that include covering health issues connected to burn pits.

Tom Morgan, 78, who served in the U.S. Army from 1969-71, says there is still work to be done, including getting dental benefits for more veterans. About 15% of the more than 9 million veterans enrolled in VA health care are eligible for dental care, but only about 5% actually receive it, according to DAV.org, which reports on veterans’ issues.

On Wednesday, Morgan sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis about his disappointment in the North Carolina senator’s vote against the burn pit legislation. Tillis, who has been an advocate for veterans and pushed for previous legislation involving burn pits, said in June he had reservations about the bill’s requirements and the ability of the Department of Veterans Affairs to meet those obligations.

The bill, called the PACT Act, had been temporarily derailed over a technical fix, leading to Morgan and others camping out at the Capitol to encourage senators to press forward with the legislation. It won final approval in the Senate on Tuesday.

Morgan said in an interview Thursday night it was “pretty pathetic” to see fellow veterans having to “practically beg to get help.”

Tillis also voted no when the bill was first passed in June, before the technical fix led to the recent stalemate. At that time, Tillis said he had reservations about the added strain on the VA, which he said was already struggling to meet its obligations to veterans.

He reiterated those concerns Thursday in an interview with Spectrum News.

“Right now, we’ve got a backlog of about 160,000 cases. Veterans waiting in line. With this bill, it’s estimated that that will go up to two million,” Tillis told Spectrum’s Tim Boyum. “I’m worried about a promise that can’t be kept unless we get some of the foundation of the PACT Act on solid footing.”

“We have a lot of work to do,” Tillis said. “I stand ready to try to fix these problems.”

The legislation expands access to health care through the VA for millions who served near burn pits, the Associated Press previously reported. It directs the VA to presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service, AP wrote.

The military used burn pits to dispose of such things as chemicals, cans, tires, plastics and medical and human waste.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War-era veterans and survivors also stand to benefit from the legislation, according to AP. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a presumptive disease associated with Agent Orange exposure.

In his letter, Morgan asked Tillis his stance on basic dental care for veterans.

“We all need to be reminded from time to time, that it is the veterans who interrupted their lives and have always stood in the gap,” Morgan wrote. “Without the veterans, there would be no country by the name of the United States.”

Contact Jennifer Fernandez at 336-373-7064.

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