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Congressman Raul Ruiz

Representing the 36th District of California

Rep. Ruiz Introduces Jennifer Kepner HOPE Act to Help Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Access Low-Cost Health Care

August 13, 2019
Press Release
The bill is named after Cathedral City veteran Jennifer Kepner, who passed away from pancreatic cancer linked to her burn pits exposure

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, Congressman Raul Ruiz, M.D. (D-Palm Desert) announced the introduction of H.R. 4137, the Jennifer Kepner Healthcare for Open-air burn-Pit Exposure (HOPE) Act, legislation that would make veterans exposed to burn pits eligible for low-cost health care from the Veterans Administration. The bill is named after Cathedral City veteran Jennifer Kepner, a wife and mother who died from pancreatic cancer linked to her exposure to toxic burn pits during her military service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, burn pits were used to dispose of waste, chemicals, and trash – including batteries, jet fuel, and other hazardous materials – at or near American military bases. Many veterans are now suffering from rare cancers and pulmonary conditions linked to their burn pit exposure.

“Jennifer Kepner was a hero who courageously battled pancreatic cancer while fighting for her fellow veterans suffering from pulmonary conditions and rare cancers linked to burn pit exposure,” Dr. Ruiz said. “I am humbled to introduce the Jennifer Kepner HOPE Act in her memory, legislation that will ease the financial burden on sick veterans who have served and sacrificed for our nation by reducing their health care costs from the VA. We must not turn our back on this growing public health crisis. Jennifer’s empathy and courage continue to inspire me in this fight for our veterans to get the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve.”

“At the beginning of the fight, we were denied care and help from the VA. Not once, but twice. When you are going through that nightmare the last thing you want is letters from the VA saying, ‘there is nothing we can do,’” said Ben Kepner. “I thank Congressman Ruiz for the introduction of this bill in my wife’s name. It was one of her dreams to prevent other veterans from going through this. Time is short and we cannot deny care to these individuals who served this great country.”

"In 2007, I served in Iraq where we were constantly exposed to the burn pits, we threw everything from batteries to trash to waste. I had no idea that years later I would be fighting a skin condition without any help from the DOD and VA," said Steven Phillips. "I want to thank Congressman Ruiz for fighting for veterans like me and helping us get the care we need!"

 

Background

On August 7, 2019, Congressman Raul Ruiz introduced H.R. 4137, the Jennifer Kepner Healthcare for Open-air burn-Pit Exposure (HOPE) Act. The bill would make veterans exposed to burn pits eligible for low-cost health care by allowing them to enroll in Priority Group 6 under the Veterans Health Administration – which also includes veterans exposed to Agent Orange and nuclear radiation.

The bill mirrors the approach taken by the Veterans’ Health Care, Training, and Small Business Loan Act of 1981, which gave Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange low-cost health care before providing them with free health care and benefits.

Congressman Ruiz introduced the Jennifer Kepner HOPE Act along with Representatives Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), and Peter King (R-NY). The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs for further consideration.

During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, burn pits were used to dispose of waste, chemicals, and trash. One burn pit in Balad, Iraq was more than 10 acres large and fed more than 240 tons of waste per day, releasing large clouds of black smoke that left runways, airfields, and tents covered in fine, green-black soot. The toxic chemicals, carcinogens, and particulate matter released have been linked to veterans developing life-threatening cancers, lung diseases, and rare illness.

Congressman Raul Ruiz, M.D. is an emergency medicine physician and the co-chairman of the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Burn Pits Caucus. Earlier this year, the House passed Congressman Ruiz’s H.R. 1381, the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act, to improve medical research by allowing entries in the burn pits registry to be updated with the cause of death after a registered veteran passes away. In July, the House also passed four of Dr. Ruiz’s amendments seeking to end the use of burn pits, educate doctors about the health effects of burn pit exposure, and increase transparency about active burn pits threatening the health of servicemembers stationed overseas.

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