WASHINGTON (AP) – A bill that would boost health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burns hit a roadblock in the Senate last week, angering supporters like comedian Jon Stewart who say government help is long overdue .
Lawmakers are increasingly hearing from constituents with respiratory illnesses and cancers who are serving near burns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military used the pits to dispose of things like chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, and medical and human waste.
Veterans groups say service members exposed to the pits have waited long enough for enhanced health benefits, and lawmakers largely agree. The Senate is expected to eventually send the measure to President Joe Biden’s desk. It’s just a matter of when.
Where the subject is located:
HOW WOULD THE BILL HELP IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS?
First, veterans who served near burns will get 10 years of health care coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs after they separate from the military instead of five years.
Second, the legislation directs the VA to assume that certain respiratory diseases and cancers are related to burn exposure. This removes the burden of proof from the veteran, allowing them to receive disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to show that the illness was a result of their service.
Approximately 70% of disability claims related to burn exposure are denied by the VA due to a lack of evidence, scientific data, and information from the Department of Defense.
IS THERE HELP FOR OTHER VETERANS? Yes. For example, hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War era veterans and survivors will also benefit. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a presumed disease associated with exposure to Agent Orange. The Congressional Budget Office projected that about 600,000 of the 1.6 million living Vietnam vets would be eligible for increased compensation, although only half would have diagnoses serious enough to warrant receiving it.
Also, veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will be considered exposed to Agent Orange. That’s another 50,000 veterans and survivors of deceased veterans who will receive compensation for illnesses believed to have been caused by their exposure to the herbicide, CBO projected.
HOW MUCH WILL THE BILL COST?
The bill is projected to increase federal deficits by about $277 billion over 10 years, the CBO said. Lawmakers did not include compensatory spending cuts or tax increases to help pay for the costs.
WHERE ARE THINGS IN CONGRESS? Both the House and the Senate approved the bill by an overwhelming majority. The Senate did so in June, but the bill contained a provision about revenue that must come from the House, which requires a technical fix.
The House approved the permanent bill by a vote of 342-88. So now the measure goes back to the Senate, where the previous iteration was passed by a vote of 84-14. Biden says he will sign it.
SO WHY HASN’T THE SENATE PASSED IT YET?
When the CBO drew up the bill, it predicted that nearly $400 billion meant to be spent on health services would be moved from discretionary spending to mandatory spending, which is largely shielded from the bruising battles that occur each year over where to spend money on credit accounts.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan budget watchdog, said a reclassification of nearly $400 billion from discretionary to mandatory would “reduce pressure to keep these costs under control and make it easier for creditors to spend more elsewhere in the budget without compensations.’
That dynamic also applied to the bill when it passed the Senate in June. However, senators overwhelmingly voted in favor of the measure.
But last week more than two dozen Republicans who voted for the bill in June voted against advancing it this time. They traveled with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is seeking a vote on an amendment he says would not cut spending for veterans but would prevent spending increases in other non-defense programs down the road.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer offered to let the Senate vote on the Toomey amendment with 60 votes needed to pass, the same number needed to advance the bill itself.
It’s unclear how the delay will be resolved, although Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell predicted Monday that the bill would be passed this week.
Veterans’ advocacy groups, a key voting bloc in the upcoming midterm elections, are furious and are stepping up political pressure on lawmakers to act. At a news conference on Capitol Hill the day after last week’s procedural vote, speakers used terms like “evil” and “reprehensible” to describe Republican senators who voted against advancing the measure last week but voted for nearly the same bill in June .
“Veterans are angry and confused about the sudden change from those they thought had their backs,” said Cory Titus of the Military Officers of America group.
“You just crushed the veterans yesterday,” added Tom Porter of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Now, we will hold them accountable.”