A soldier in the Afghan National Army (ANA) walks past a burn pit at a command outpost recently handed over to the ANA from the United States Army on March 22, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Zhari District, Afghanistan. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
The two leaders of the U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Montana Democrat Jon Tester and Kansas Republican Jerry Moran, have reached a deal with House leaders to pass a bill to extend health care access to veterans for conditions related to exposure to toxic chemicals during their service, the pair announced Wednesday.
The consensus bill would for the first time provide service veterans of all generations health care and benefits for exposure to toxic burn pits overseas.
The agreement bridges the divides of two related measures passed in each chamber of Congress this year and clears the path for a bipartisan bill to become law.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday the chamber would vote on the legislation the week of June 6, while the White House announced President Joe Biden’s support.
The Senate unanimously approved a $1 billion Moran-Tester bill in February to ensure that post-9/11 service veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits can receive care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Wednesday’s agreement would result in a measure that more closely resembles the House bill, though it includes some substantial changes. Tester and Moran negotiated the deal with House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., and ranking Republican Mike Bost of Illinois, as well as the Biden administration and veteran advocacy groups.
Toxic pits of trash
During wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, federal contractors would fill holes in the ground with garbage, medical waste, vehicles and plastics, douse the trash in jet fuel and set it on fire, The New York Times reported. Defense officials have been reluctant to accept responsibility for the health issues that members of the military have contracted after breathing in the smoke from these burn pits.
The bill is named after Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, an Ohio National Guard solider who deployed to Kosovo and Iraq and died in 2020 of lung cancer believed to have resulted from exposure to burning toxic waste in Iraq more than a decade earlier.
“This bipartisan legislation is the most comprehensive toxic exposure package the Senate has ever delivered to veterans,” Tester and Moran said in a release.
“For far too long, our nation’s veterans have been living with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform. Today, we’re taking necessary steps to right this wrong with our proposal that’ll provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve.”
Takano also applauded the agreement.
“For too long, Congress and VA have been slow to act on toxic exposure — but I am elated that Chairman Tester and Ranking Member Moran have agreed to a compromise to advance my legislation that upholds our promise to toxic-exposed veterans,” he said in a statement.
Final text for the consensus bill has not been released. Once the Senate approves it, the House would then have to approve changes. The bill would then head to Biden’s desk.
The bill would expand VA health care eligibility to post-9/11 veterans, affecting about 3.5 million former service members. It would add 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to a list of conditions presumed to be service-related, according to the Tester-Moran statement.
The Senate would alter the House bill by phasing in the presumption over a span of years, addressing a fear that the VA would be overwhelmed by the provision taking effect immediately, spokespeople for the Senate committee said.
The Senate version will also include a framework to establish future presumptions of service-related toxic exposure, according to the release from Tester and Moran.
The agreement would also strengthen federal research on toxic exposure, improve the VA’s resources and training for toxic-exposed veterans and add funding for claims processing, the VA workforce and VA facilities.
The bill would also expand presumptions for Agent Orange exposure to several countries in Asia and islands in the Pacific Ocean.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a Wednesday statement Biden supports the measure.
“President Biden has championed legislation to deliver the benefits and health care services that veterans impacted by toxic exposures have earned,” she said in a statement. “This historic, comprehensive bill will do just that.”
The VA added nine rare respiratory cancers linked to burn pit exposure to the list of illnesses eligible for disability and health benefits last month.
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