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President Biden announced on Veterans Day a strategy to identify and treat health issues in veterans that developed from toxic exposures on the front lines. That includes environmental hazards from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough said the president is the first to ensure certain medical conditions, including sinusitis, rhinitis and asthma, are presumed to be connected to service in Iraq and Afghanistan for veterans who served there.
  • Biden gave the VA a timeline of early 2022 to extend this to rare respiratory cancers, which McDonough said he hopes to announce in the next several weeks.
  • McDonough said the Veterans Benefits Administration is hiring 2,000 people to help process the “surge of claims,” expected to be about 300,000 for the first three conditions.
  • McDonough emphasized that while the department has the necessary funds right now, an extended continuing resolution would significantly impact its ability to process claims.
  • The VA is working with the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Labor on an interagency team chaired by the Domestic Policy Council, said McDonough.
  • McDonough said the VA is increasing access points for mental health care, trying to reduce the stigma associated with it, working to ensure there are enough care providers and focusing on suicide prevention through communication campaigns and improved access to gun locks.
  • He said he is proud of the bipartisan effort from Republicans and Democrats on the Hire Veteran Health Heroes Act, which provides new authorities to hire health professionals who were trained in the military.
  • McDonough said he is “routinely blown away” by the VA workforce, which maintained high productivity despite maximum telework during the pandemic.
  • He said the department will recognize religious exemptions in the approximately 10% of employees who are unvaccinated for Covid-19, except for those working in highly sensitive areas.
  • The VA is finding housing for hundreds of homeless veterans in Veterans Row in Los Angeles, McDonough said.

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