How health care and disability benefits for veterans became a fight in Congress

A bill that would improve health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic combustion fireplaces ran into trouble in the Senate last week, angering advocates like comedian Jon Stewart , who say government assistance is long overdue.

Lawmakers are increasingly hearing about voters suffering from respiratory illnesses and cancers they attribute to service near burning sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military used the pits to dispose of chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, and medical and human waste.

Veterans’ groups say service members who were exposed to the pits have waited long enough to receive improved health benefits, and lawmakers largely agree. The Senate is expected to ultimately send the measure to President Joe Biden’s office. It’s just a matter of when.

Where is the problem:

How would the bill help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan?

First, veterans who served near the hotspots will get 10 years of health care coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs upon separation from the military instead of five years.

Second, the legislation directs the VA to presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were linked to exposure to the burn pit. This removes the burden of proof from the veteran, allowing them to obtain disability benefits to compensate for their injury without having to prove that the illness was the result of their service.

About 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data, and information from the Department of Defense.

Are there other supports for veterans?

Yes. For example, hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War veterans and survivors are also expected to benefit. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a suspected illness associated with exposure to Agent Orange. The Congressional Budget Office projected that about 600,000 of the 1.6 million veterans living in Vietnam would be eligible for increased compensation, though only about half have diagnoses serious enough to warrant receiving it.

Additionally, veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will be presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. That’s an additional 50,000 veterans and survivors of deceased veterans who would get compensation for illnesses believed to have been caused by their exposure to the herbicide, the CBO predicted.

How much will the bill cost?

The bill is expected to increase federal deficits by about $277 billion over 10 years, the CBO said. Lawmakers did not include offsetting spending cuts or tax increases to help pay for expenses.

Where are things in Congress?

Both the House and Senate approved the bill overwhelmingly. The Senate did so in June, but the bill contained a provision tied to revenue that had to come from the House, requiring an overhaul to provide a technical fix.

The House approved the fixed bill by a vote of 342-88. So, now the measure is back in front of the Senate, where the previous iteration passed by a vote of 84-14. Biden says he will sign it.

So why hasn’t the Senate approved it yet?

When the CBO flagged the bill, it predicted that nearly $400 billion that needed to be spent on health services would shift from discretionary to mandatory spending, which is mostly immune to the deadly battles that are happening. each year to find out where to spend money in appropriation bills.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan budget watchdog, said a reclassification of nearly $400 billion from discretionary to mandatory “would both reduce the pressure to control these costs and allow users to spend more easily elsewhere in the budget without shifts.”

This dynamic also applied to the bill when the Senate approved it in June. Nonetheless, senators voted overwhelmingly for the measure.

But, last week, more than two dozen Republicans who voted for the bill in June voted against advancing it this time. They sided with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is calling for a vote on an amendment he says would not cut spending on veterans, but would prevent increased spending on other unrelated programs. to the defense.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has proposed letting the Senate vote on the Toomey Amendment with the 60 votes needed for it to pass, the same number that is needed to move the bill itself forward.

It’s unclear how the delay will be resolved, though Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell predicted Monday that the bill would pass this week.

Veterans’ advocacy groups, a key electoral bloc in the upcoming midterm elections, are furious and are stepping up political pressure on lawmakers to act. At a press conference on Capitol Hill the day after last week’s procedural vote, speakers used terms such as “wicked” and “objectionable” to describe Republican senators who voted against advancing the measure. last week but voted for almost the exact same bill in June.

“Veterans are angry and confused at the sudden change in who they thought had their backs,” said Cory Titus of the Military Officers Association of America.

“You just fucked up veterans yesterday,” added Tom Porter of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Now we will hold them accountable.”

About Antoine L. Cassell

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