Senate Set to Improve Benefits for Vets Exposed to Burn Pits | New Policies

By KEVIN FREKING, Associated Press

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

The bill’s passage will end years of advocacy work by veterans’ groups and others who liken burning stoves to the Agent Orange herbicide that Vietnamese-era veterans have been exposed to. exhibited in Southeast Asia.

The bill would expand the eligibility window for free medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. This window would double for Iraqi and Afghan veterans, from five years after release to 10.

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 was the result of 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.

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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.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D.N.Y., said dozens of American veterans 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 they hadn’t. t qualify.

“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. “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. The House approved similar legislation in March that would have cost more than $320 billion over 10 years. The House will also need to approve the Senate measure to send it to President Joe Biden for signing into law, and it is expected to do so.

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.

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 said voters’ stories tell a different, more definitive story, and they’re hesitant to expect an irrefutable link between veterans’ illnesses and their exposure to toxic burning stoves.

“Anytime 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. hear quite often.

Most Republicans are expected to vote for the bill. About half of GOP senators voted no in a procedural vote to move the legislation forward, vexed at the inability to vote on the bill’s amendments, but some indicated they would support final passage . Some are also expected to oppose the bill 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 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 claims. of disability.

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.”

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