Veterans Exposed to Toxins Face Uphill Fight for Health Benefit

  • Price tag of almost $300 billion gives some lawmakers pause
  • ‘Cost of war’ outweighs ‘sticker shock,’ bill sponsor says

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A bid to help U.S. veterans exposed to toxic substances during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan faces objections to its cost as backers of the ambitious legislation prepare for a vote in the House next week.

The measure, H.R. 3967, would speed health care and benefits to millions of veterans exposed to burn pits. Some Republicans say the price tag — almost $300 billion over the next decade — is too high.

The military long has used open air pits to burn jet fuel, paint, plastic, medical waste, and garbage. Veterans diagnosed with cancer, lung disease, and other respiratory problems years after their deployments have sought help for the ailments they suspect were caused by the toxic exposure.

“This is about the cost of war,” bill sponsor Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said at a roundtable Tuesday. Congress cannot renege its promises to those who fought the country’s wars “because of sticker shock,” he added.

Roughly 3.5 million veterans have had some burn pit exposure, lawmakers and advocates estimate. Still, the Veterans Affairs Department doesn’t recognize the effects of burn pits as conditions it should cover, and says there’s insufficient evidence to support such claims.

Takano’s bill would shift the burden of proof, giving veterans the benefit of the doubt when they seek help from the VA. It also would establish a presumption of connection between 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers and service personnel’s exposure to burn pits and airborne hazards.

Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
Comedian and activist Jon Stewart speaks during a U.S. Capitol news conference Nov. 4, 2021 promoting legislation that would provide health care to military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

Takano predicted his legislation would receive “plenty” of bipartisan support on the House floor. “I see the bill gaining tremendous momentum,” he said.

Comedian and activist Jon Stewart, on the call with Takano and veterans, compared the exposure to burn pits to an improvised explosive device “that goes off in your body seven years later.” Stewart previously championed benefits for first responders whose health was affected by the 9/11 attacks.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would increase spending by $281 billion over the next decade and $147 billion the following decade. The price tag has caused concern among Republicans in both the House and Senate. Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), the Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member, has insisted that cutting costs would be crucial.

That, in large part, is the reason why the Senate split its effort into three phases, with the first bill (S. 3541) passed by voice vote last week. The measure, sponsored by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and ranking member Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), seeks to bolster the VA’s ability to find links to the toxic exposure conditions and offer access to VA health care to every combat veteran who served after November 1998 and was discharged after Sept. 11, 2001.

Window of Eligibility

The measure would expand the period of health-care eligibility for combat veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001 from five years following discharge to 10 years and would provide a one-year open enrollment period for any post-9/11 combat veterans who are outside their 10-year window.

The other two bills should be completed by July, according to Tester. That leaves supporters looking at months of negotiations before a final bill could go to the White House for President Joe Biden’s signature.

Among those talking points will be the Republicans’ insistence that the bill is paid for. Takano said he’s confident an offset can be found. Ideas that could be considered include “clawing back” money fraudulently obtained during the coronavirus pandemic, or a slight increase in the corporate tax, Takano said.

“We have everything we need but apparently the will,” activist Stewart said on the call Tuesday. “There is nothing fiscally irresponsible” in the House’s legislation, he added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at; Sarah Babbage at

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