How one California family helped win new benefits for sick vets

Jennifer Kepner seemed like one of the healthiest people you could ever meet. I ran, worked at CrossFit and worked at the local hospital in Cathedral City.

Then her back started to hurt.

Doctors found a mass in her pancreas. But they couldn’t figure out why a healthy person would develop pancreatic cancer, which is extremely rare in young adults, at age 37. In the end, the oncologist pointed out the only red flag in Jennifer’s authentic medical history: her proximity to a burn pit while working as an Air Force medic at Balad Air Base in Iraq.

With Jennifer’s health failing, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied the application after seeking benefits to support her treatment and her family, including her husband Ben and their two young children. The Department of Defense uses burn pits like the one near the Jennifer Base to dispose of chemicals, cans, tires, plastic, medical equipment, and human waste. But the Kepner family could not convince the agency that Jennifer’s illness was due to inhaling toxic fumes in the burn pit.

Representative Raul Ruiz (De Palm Springs) poses with Jennifer Kepner, center, and her husband Ben Kepner, left, at the couple’s home in Cathedral City in 2017. Jennifer died of pancreatic cancer later that year.

(Office of Representative Raul Ruiz in Congress).

Angered by the VA’s reticence, Jennifer’s friends and colleagues reached out to local media and the couple’s congressman, Representative Raul Ruiz (De Palm Springs), who worked as a doctor in the emergency room before being elected to the board. In 2017, Ruiz met the Keppners at their kitchen table and pledged to ensure that their families, and their families like them, got the help they needed.

Jennifer passed away on October 18, 2017, at the age of 37.

Shortly after Jennifer’s death, the first check from VA finally arrived at the Keppners’ home. “Her biggest battle was that she didn’t want other families to go through what we went through,” Ben Kepner told The Times. “It was a year and a half battle while she was alive, dealing with her health, and then dealing with the VA as well. It was a year and a half of hell, with no significant help from the VA, the people who are supposed to They take care of you…. This is the last thing you want to deal with.”

After Jennifer’s death, Ben and Ruiz continued to work to ensure that other families did not have to put up with what she had done.

On Wednesday, they celebrated a major victory as President Biden signed the $280 billion PACT Act into law in the White House. This action directs Veterans Affairs to assume that some cancers and respiratory illnesses are linked to exposure to burns, allowing veterans to receive disability payments without having to prove that their illness is a result of their service, like Kepners. One measure in the package, titled the Jennifer Kepner HOPE Act, will provide veterans at risk of burn burns eligibility for VA Healthcare.

“Many of you here today remind us that we fought for this for many years,” Biden said during the signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Biden’s eldest son died of cancer after being sent to Iraq. “Boe got lost in the same burn pits,” Biden said.

Ruiz said the new law removes the burden of proof that has been burdening families like Kepner and has been years in the making. One of the main obstacles he faced was the lack of conclusive scientific evidence linking diseases to exposure to burn pits.

“There were hundreds of toxic chemicals, and there were known carcinogens, that were tested from the soil near the smoke pits,” Ruiz said. “We do not have time for a 20-year longitudinal dual-cohort study to establish causation. … In this case, there was enough doubt and scientific evidence in the literature and through medical practice, that the burns were causing severe enough disease – people were dying, And they still are — we need to act on it.”

According to Ruiz’s office, six open-air burning pits are still operating across Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt and Chad. Almost 70% of disability claims Regarding exposure in the burn pit, Veterans Affairs dismissed, which cited a lack of evidence, scientific data, and information from the Department of Defense.

“More than 8 million veterans and their families will be positively affected,” Ruiz, who has written several burn pit provisions, said of the new law. “Their pain and suffering will be alleviated because they will receive health care, and their widows and families will be taken care of because they will receive their benefits.”

The legislation, approved by Senate 86-11 earlier this month, is the largest expansion of veterans’ health care in decades. Hundreds of thousands of veterans and Vietnam War-era survivors will also benefit from the new law. It adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a putative disease associated with exposure to Agent Orange.

Senators had approved the legislation in June, but had to vote again this month to approve a technical reform. Then Senate Republicans blocked the bill from moving forward, saying they wanted to change another part of the legislation. The delay angered groups of veterans and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart, many of whom camped out at the Capitol in protest.

Ruiz and Kepner said the bill is just one step toward greater justice. Both aim to stop the Department of Defense from its practice of using burn pits altogether. In the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, Ruiz has secured language guiding the agency to seek alternatives to burning pits.

“My wife kind of started the phrase, she’s the orange agent of this generation, and she really is,” Kepner said. “This bill means the world not only to me, but to everyone who is going through what we have been through. … They served their country and were exposed to harmful and funny carcinogens. It is just unacceptable.”

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