Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, speaks at a press conference on legislation to provide health care for veterans exposed to burn pits on June 7. (Jennifer Shutt | States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate is set to approve a sweeping bill in the coming days steered by the bipartisan duo of Montana’s Jon Tester and Kansas’ Jerry Moran that would expand health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits overseas — though a few final details linger.
Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill were negotiating behind the scenes Wednesday to determine how many amendments will be offered to the bipartisan package and how many votes each amendment will need to be added to the bill.
Tester, the Democratic chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told States Newsroom he’s trying to get a final vote on the package this week, though that will depend on how quickly leaders reach an amendment agreement.
“The problem is, we open it up for amendments, and it gets pretty wild on both sides,” he said.
Tester said he hoped only two amendments would be offered to the bill, but wasn’t sure that would be the final agreement. While conversations are ongoing, Tester said, he’s hopeful the Senate can quickly send the bill to the House for final approval.
“We want to try to get it done soon. The quicker the better, to give certainty,” he said.
Moran, the panel’s top Republican, said Wednesday he and Tester have agreed on two amendments, but that ultimately party leaders will decide how many come up during floor debate. Adding amendments could prolong debate and potentially change the details of the legislation.
“Senator Tester and I, between the two of us, have reached a conclusion as to what we would like to see. But the point is, we have little control over that being the case,” Moran said, referring to Senate leaders.
The two amendments would address community care programs and reclassify the type of spending in the bill from mandatory to discretionary.
The change in category would require funding for the new VA health care and benefits programs to go through the annual government spending process in the same way much of the other Veterans Affairs funding gets approved each year.
A spokesperson for Moran said in a statement the senator backs the change, saying the way the bill is written now “lessens congressional oversight of the VA.”
“As an appropriator, Sen. Moran works to fund the VA each year and believes funding for all programs that serve veterans should get the fullest consideration and deliberation of the Senate,” the spokesperson said.
The bill itself has overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, where lawmakers voted 86-12 on Tuesday to move the process forward.
North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, Louisiana Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan and Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey were among the dozen Republicans to vote no on the procedural hurdle.
Named for Ohio Guardsman
Tester and Moran announced the agreement on the bipartisan bill, named for Ohio National Guardsman Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, in mid-May.
Robinson — whose widow, Danielle attended the State of the Union address earlier this year — died in 2020 of lung cancer that was likely caused by the time he spent breathing in fumes from the burn pits during deployments to Kosovo and Iraq.
“Cancer from prolonged exposure to burn pits ravaged Heath’s lungs and body,” President Joe Biden said during his speech. “Danielle says Heath was a fighter to the very end. He didn’t know how to stop fighting, and neither did she. Through her pain she found purpose to demand we do better.”
Several veterans service organizations, long-time advocate for veterans and celebrity comedian Jon Stewart, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich, Tester, Moran and others gathered Tuesday outside the U.S. Capitol to urge swift passage of the measure.
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The bipartisan bill would expand eligibility for VA health care to more than 3.5 million veterans exposed to burn pits since 9/11.
It would add 23 illnesses to the list of toxic-exposure related ailments presumed to be related to military service, ending the need for veterans with those conditions to try to prove to the VA their illnesses were linked to their deployments.
The package would direct more resources to VA health care centers, employees and claims processing as well as federal research on toxic exposure.
The measure would also expand presumptions for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War. American Samoa, Cambodia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Laos and Thailand would all be added to the list of locations where veterans are presumed to have been exposed to the chemical.
The ‘cost of war’
Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Tester said the $278.5 billion cost of covering health care and benefits for these veterans will be “significant,” though he added that’s the “cost of war.”
“This bill will put the VA and put this nation on the right track to addressing decades of inaction and failure by our government, by us, to pay for the cost of war,” Tester said.
House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, a California Democrat, said in a statement that he was happy the senators “were able to build on the bipartisan momentum made in the U.S. House of Representatives only a few months ago, and negotiate an agreement and path forward.”
“I have long said that, we cannot let cost or implementation hurdles get in the way of making good on our promise — toxic-exposed veterans do not have time to wait,” Takano added.
Baldwin: ‘A promise we have made and that we need to keep’
For Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the approaching vote on a bill that will enable veterans exposed to toxic chemicals from military burn pits overseas is the culmination of more than two decades of work.
“I learned about these issues when I first was elected to the Congress,” after the end of the first Gulf War, Baldwin, who went to Washington, D.C., as the 2nd District member of Congress from Madison after the 1998 election, told the Wisconsin Examiner in an interview.
“That generation was beginning to have the ill effects from being stationed in Kuwait and having passed the oil fields, which were often burning,” Baldwin said. “It kind of shocked me that the VA wasn’t recognizing that some of these Gulf War Syndrome issues were as a direct result of these toxic exposures.”
She said an estimated 3.5 million service members have been exposed to toxins of one kind or another while in the military since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.
“And they have, up to this point, not been able to secure VA health care in many instances because there was a refusal to link the disease or illness with their toxic exposure,” Baldwin said. “That was wrong, and it’s important to see that corrected.”
The legislation also includes provisions to cover veterans who served at the Karshi-Khanabad air base, known as K2, in Uzbekistan in the years after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the conflicts that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq — an issue that Baldwin has focused on.
“We know now that K-2 service members were exposed to multiple cancer-causing toxic chemicals and radiological hazards during their deployment,” Baldwin said. While that exposure wasn’t from burn pits, it was similar in its impact on service members.
Meeting veterans who gave her their accounts of exposure and its effects on their health for years afterward brought the issue home.
“It becomes personal when people you know and work with are suffering, after they have sacrificed so much for their country,” she said. “It’s really a promise that we have made and that we need to keep to our veterans who suffered through these exposures.”
The bill creates a list of health conditions that, when it becomes law, will be presumed to be linked to burn pit exposures, Baldwin explained. It took time to do the research to understand the link between exposure and the illnesses associated with it.
“But this is so long overdue. Ever since the first Gulf War, we have had now millions of veterans who have been subjected to these toxic exposures, including in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said.
The legislation includes provisions for continued study of the problem as well as for treatment.
“In addition to recognizing the various health conditions as being related to burn pits and toxic exposures, the bill also strengthens research on toxic exposure and addresses the VA’s resources so that claims that are made under this new law will be timely processed, and that’s a big deal,” Baldwin said.
The assurance of coverage isn’t enough, she observed. “If you apply and it takes forever for the determination to be made, that’s a sort of empty promise.” The legislation addresses that, Baldwin said. “As we see it implemented, we’re going to have to see if those resources are enough to speed up that processing of these claims.”
— Erik Gunn
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