25 Investigates: Bills in Congress to improve veterans’ access to health care are moving forward

BOSTON — Legislation aimed at improving veterans’ access to healthcare for physical and emotional need are progressing in Congress, but neither have made it across the finish line yet.

Earlier this year Boston 25 News anchor, Kerry Kavanaugh told you about Gulf War veterans ongoing fight to get the Veterans Administration to cover sickness and injuries from toxic exposures, some 30 years after that war ended.

Kavanaugh spoke one-on-one with New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan about two bills she’s supporting to improve veterans’ access to the services they need.

“These men and women have served so bravely for all of us, they’ve preserved our freedoms,” Hassan said. “We want to make sure they have the support that they need.”

But veterans have faced an uphill battle for health care. For example, Gulf War veterans were exposed to chemicals like sarin nerve gas, pesticides, and anti-nerve gas pills. And, for decades veterans serving in the Middle East have been in proximity to burn pits the U.S. government used to dispose of all kinds of waste.

“I couldn’t sleep. I’d wake up not able to breathe. The digestive problems, and yeah, there were pains. And, I was having headaches, a lot of headaches,” said New Hampshire Gulf War veteran, Lynn Santosuosso. “And that got written off for years.”

Santosuosso said for far too long she felt like no one believed ‘Gulf War Illness’ was impacting her life and wellbeing as much as it was.

Hassan originally co-sponsored the TEAM Act or Toxic Exposure in the American Military, which has now been rolled into a larger bill to address veteran’s healthcare, the Cost of War Act.

“It basically says if you can show you were in a warzone, where there were toxic substance exposures, you qualify for health care at the VA, right now, for the rest of your life,” Hassan says.

Right now, the burden is on a veteran to prove the connection between a toxic exposure and their illness or disability.

“I know some of the issues that the veterans run into is they come home healthy, and maybe they get sick five years later,” Kavanaugh said.

“We are we are setting up a framework that presumes that you qualify for health care, and the illness is disabling for disability benefits, too,” Hassan responded.

Hassan says it’s understood a vet might get sick later in life.

The New Hampshire Democrat is also working on legislation to improve veterans’ access to mental health services. She’s co-sponsored a bill to designate a ‘Buddy Check’ outreach program.

“Buddies checking on buddies, because one of the things we hear from veterans is one, they don’t know what services are out there to it’s really very, very valuable for them to have peer to peer support,” Hassan said.

The bill, which made it through the Senate, would designate at least a week a year to focusing on veteran peer support. It was modeled off an existing program through the American Legion. Hassan is confident that will successfully get through a full House vote.

“Other veterans are really the only people who truly understand what they’ve been through and what they’re experiencing,” Hassan said,

Veteran advocacy groups have been on the frontlines of the battle for better health care.

In response to the Cost of War Act, The Veterans for Common Sense told Kavanaugh in a written statement “The most critical part of these competing toxic exposure bills is ensuring the greatest number of health conditions are made “presumptive” for the largest number of veterans.”

The Cost of War Act was passed out of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee in May. Hassan says she’s working to gather bipartisan support for full Senate vote.

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