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Millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq would receive more health-care access and benefits under a revised measure the Senate advanced.
The Senate voted 84-14 on Thursday in favor of the substitute amendment to House-passed H.R. 3967, sending it back to the House for consideration. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the committee’s ranking member, introduced the substitute, which could cost $278.5 billion over 10 years.
“Veterans across this country are the ones paying for that cost of war—and they can’t any longer. No more empty promises,” Tester said on the Senate floor last week. “We’ve got a unique opportunity to make history with this comprehensive toxic exposure package that’ll recognize our veterans’ service and their sacrifice. We are too close to fail.”
The military burns fuel, chemicals, and other substances in open air pits to get rid of waste. About 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to the burn pits, which have been linked to cancer, respiratory diseases, and other illnesses.
Some House Republicans had expressed concern about the measure’s price tag. The House version of the bill would cost about $322 billion in discretionary and mandatory spending. The Senate amendment decreased this amount because fewer veterans would be eligible for disability compensation, and the effective date would be pushed back, the Congressional Budget Office estimated.
The act would broaden Veterans Affairs health care eligibility to veterans from post-9/11 wars. Twenty-three toxic exposure conditions would be added to the VA’s list of conditions presumed to be caused by military service.
White House Support
The VA in April said that it is adding nine rare respiratory cancers to the list of disabilities caused by exposure to toxic substances during military deployments. President Joe Biden had promised the move in his State of the Union address this year.
“My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to support our nation’s veterans, and I urge Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to comprehensively address toxic exposures and further deliver the vital benefits our veterans have earned. I will sign it immediately,” Biden said in a statement at the time.
The legislation is called the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act, in honor of a veteran who died from burn pit-related lung cancer in 2020.
Among other components, the bill would also mandate more federal research on toxic burn pits and expanded health coverage of conditions that could be tied to exposure from Agent Orange herbicide.
Veterans’ advocates, including family members of Robinson, urged senators to pass the amended bill.
“The Senate has the opportunity to not give up on our brave men and woman, who willingly went off to war in America’s name and are now sick and dying due to exposure from burn pits and other toxins,” Robinson’s mother-in-law Susan Zeier said at a press conference last week.
With assistance from Roxana Tiron
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