WATCH: Senate approves enhanced health care and disability benefits for veterans exposed to toxic combustion fireplaces

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Thursday approved a sweeping expansion of health care and disability benefits for Iraqi and Afghan veterans in response to concerns about their exposure to toxic burning stoves.

Watch the vote in the player above.

The bill’s passage by an 84-14 vote sets a course that could help millions of people who served after 9/11 and ends years of advocacy work by veterans’ groups and others who compare burns to the Agent Orange herbicide of the Vietnam era. veterans were exposed to in Southeast Asia.

The bill is expected to increase federal spending by about $283 billion over 10 years and does not include offsetting spending cuts or tax increases to help pay. The House approved similar legislation in March that would have cost more than $320 billion over 10 years.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said after the Senate passed the House would “move quickly” to pass the bill and send it to President Joe Biden to sign into law. Biden encouraged that effort and said if Congress passes comprehensive legislation to address toxic exposures, he “would sign it into law immediately.”

The Army routinely used open fire pits set on fire with jet fuel to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste, and other materials during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill would expand military veterans’ eligibility for medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs by extending coverage for 10 years after discharge instead of the current five years.

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

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

LOOK: Senate considers health care legislation for veterans exposed to toxic substances

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., described the bill as “the biggest breakthrough in veterans health care in decades.” He said dozens of American veterans have left to serve their country in perfect health only to return and fall ill from toxic exposure, and when they applied for disability benefits they often found that they weren’t eligible.

“It’s a baffling indignity for our nation’s heroes to sacrifice everything for our country to come home, get sick, and find the VA isn’t there for them,” Schumer said.

A 2020 study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that health studies provide insufficient evidence to determine whether exposure to combustion fireplace emissions is linked to 27 adverse respiratory conditions such as as asthma, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer. The study authors said uncertainty does not mean there is no association, only that there is not enough data to draw firm conclusions.

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

“Any time you have to seal that connection, it’s hard on a lot of things,” said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind. “In this case, I think the evidence is such that there is a causal relationship. I heard of so many people who were there who had pretty close symptoms after their shift ended. It’s not once in a while. You hear it quite often.

Most Republicans vote for the bill, but some opposed it due to tax concerns.

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

An expansion of health care and disability benefits could also tax an already stressed VA system, which lawmakers have sought to address by licensing 31 new medical clinics in 19 states and increasing investment in IT systems for processing patients. disability claims.

Most Republicans in the House voted against that chamber’s version of the legislation. The Senate version reduced some of the costs early on by phasing in some perk improvements. Senator Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the bill seeks to “right a wrong that has been ignored for far too long.”

“There is always a cost to war,” Tester said, “and that cost is never fully paid at the end of the war.”

About Antoine L. Cassell

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