Senate Moves to Improve Benefits for Veterinarians Exposed to Burn Pits

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is expected to approve Thursday a major expansion of health care and disability benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in response to concerns about their exposure to toxic combustion pits.

Passage of the bill will cap years of advocacy work by veterans groups and others comparing burn pits to the herbicide Agent Orange to which Vietnam-era veterans in Southeast Asia were exposed.

The bill would expand the window of eligibility for free health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. That window would double for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from five years after discharge to 10.

The legislation would also assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to exposure to burn pits, allowing veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove that the illness was a result of their service. Currently, more than 70% of disability claims related to fire pit exposure are denied by the VA due to a lack of evidence, scientific data, and Department of Defense information.

The legislation would also benefit many Vietnam War-era veterans by including high blood pressure in the list of conditions presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure. And it would extend the Agent Orange assumptions to veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam and American Samoa.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said dozens of U.S. veterans left to serve their country in perfect health only to return and become ill from toxic exposure, and when they applied for benefits because of disability, they often realized that they had not. not qualify

“It is a shocking indignity that our nation’s heroes would sacrifice everything for our country only to come home, get sick, and find that VA is not there for them,” Schumer said. “They have to fend for themselves.”

The bill will increase federal spending by about $283 billion over 10 years and does not include offsetting spending cuts or tax increases to help pay for it. The House passed similar legislation in March that would have cost more than $320 billion over 10 years. The House will have to pass the Senate measure as well for President Joe Biden to sign it into law, and it is expected to do so.

The Army routinely used jet fuel-fired open burn pits to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste, and other materials during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A 2020 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that health studies provided insufficient evidence to determine whether exposure to combustion pit emissions is linked to 27 adverse respiratory conditions, including asthma, chronic bronchitis, and cancer of lung. The study authors said the uncertainty does not mean there is no association, just that there were not enough data to draw definitive conclusions.

But lawmakers said constituents’ stories tell a different, more definitive story, and they are reluctant to expect an irrefutable link between veterans’ illnesses and their exposure to toxic burn pits.

“Anytime you have to make the connection airtight, that’s hard on a lot of things,” said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Indiana. “In this case, I think the evidence is such that there is some causal relationship. I heard from so many who were there and had the symptoms pretty close after their service was over. That is not from time to time. You hear it quite often.

Most Republicans are expected to vote for the bill. About half of Republican senators voted no on a procedural vote to advance the legislation, upset over the inability to vote on amendments to the bill, but some indicated they would support final passage. Some are also expected to oppose the bill due to fiscal concerns.

“That’s too much money,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, of the estimated $283 billion price tag.

An expansion of health care and disability benefits could strain an already overburdened VA system, which lawmakers tried to address by authorizing 31 new medical clinics in 19 states and increasing investments in computer systems for processing disability claims.

A majority of House Republicans voted against the House version of the legislation. The Senate version cut some of the costs early on by gradually introducing certain benefit improvements. Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the bill “tries to right a wrong that has been ignored for far too long.”

“There is always a cost of war,” Tester said, “and that cost is never fully paid when the war is over.”

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