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Senate passes bill to expand benefits for veterans exposed to burns

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday approved a bill to create a new entitlement program to treat veterans who may have been exposed to toxic substances from burning trash on US military bases, sending President Biden legislation that would expand eligibility for medical care to about 3.5 million people.

The bill passed on a lopsided bipartisan vote, 86 to 11, just days after Republicans withdrew support in a dispute over how the benefits would be paid, putting the legislation in jeopardy and leading to days of angry protest by veterans who gathered outside the Capitol to demand action.

The measure would be the largest expansion of veterans’ benefits since the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which increased access to care for Vietnam War veterans exposed to the toxic herbicide that endangered generations of Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodians.

The new legislation would essentially assume that any US service member stationed in a combat zone in the past 32 years could have been exposed to toxic substances, making available a projected $280 billion over the next decade to treat illnesses linked to those exposures and streamlining veterans’ access to such care.

The House passed the bill last month and Mr. Biden, who has championed the measure, was expected to sign it quickly. He has speculated that toxic substances from burns contributed to the brain cancer that killed his son Beau Biden, who was serving in Iraq, in 2015.

The legislation had received broad support on Capitol Hill, but just as it was expected to clear the Senate last week, Republicans in the chamber abruptly withdrew their support, insisting that Democrats are giving them a chance to cut funding available to treat veterans.

The bill would provide guaranteed funding to treat veterans exposed to toxins by creating a special fund that would not be subject to the annual congressional spending process. Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, warned that the measure was written in a way that could allow massive new spending unrelated to veterans’ care.

Mr Toomey tried and failed to limit the amount of money that could be put into the fund each year, a move that Denis McDonough, the veterans affairs secretary, had warned could lead to “streamlining of care for vets ».

Mr. Toomey also proposed shifting the veterans treatment fund to so-called discretionary spending after a decade, meaning the Department of Veterans Affairs would have to request funding every year. That would make funding contingent on congressional approval and annual partisan spending battles on Capitol Hill, rather than guaranteed.

Democrats opposed both efforts, saying the legislation didn’t need to change.

“This is a bill that will work for this country, it will work for the taxpayers of this country and, most of all, it will work for veterans and their families,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who chairs the committee. of Veterans Affairs.

Susan Zeier, the mother-in-law of Ohio Army National Guard member Heath Robinson for whom the bill is named, protested outside the Capitol for days to urge the Senate to pass the measure before it left for summer recess. .

Mr Robinson served in Iraq and died in 2020 after a battle with lung cancer believed to have been linked to exposure to burns, and the account is called Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our promise to address the Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022.

“For me and my daughter, this is the satisfaction of fulfilling our promise to Heath,” Ms. Zeier said. “We hope the families don’t suffer like we did.”

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