WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional negotiators announced on Wednesday that they had reached agreement on legislation to strengthen health services and disability benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burns in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
The agreement paves the way for the passage of a bill that has become the top priority for veterans groups seeking to help the growing number of people with illnesses they believe are linked to toxic exposure. .
Top Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee reached an agreement after months of negotiations. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., quickly threw their support behind the measure. The transition could take place in July.
“Our veterans need it, they deserve it, and we have a moral obligation to care for those who have sacrificed so much for us,” Schumer said.
The House passed a version of the bill in March that the Congressional Budget Office said would increase federal spending by more than $300 billion over 10 years. This would increase access to VA health care for millions of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if they do not have a service-related disability.
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. Reports from the Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that nearly 80% of exposure disability claims related to fireplaces are denied.
The military routinely dumped tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials in open pits during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most Republican lawmakers in the House voted against the bill, fearing the influx of cases would tax an already stressed VA system, leading to longer wait times for health care and treatment for patients. disability claims.
A key difference in the deal made by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., is the transition period for presuming that certain conditions were caused by toxic exposure. But the key elements of the House measure are part of the deal. Pelosi described the two bills as “nearly identical.”
The two senators said 23 illnesses, including hypertension, would be presumed to be related to burn pit exposure when providing disability compensation.
“For far too long, our country’s veterans have lived with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform,” Tester and Moran said in a joint statement. “Today, we are taking the necessary steps to right that wrong with our proposal that will provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve. »
Both senators said the bill would also affect veterans who served in Vietnam, expanding the list of suspected illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure to include hypertension. It would also expand the presumption of exposure to the toxic herbicide for veterans deployed to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam and American Samoa.
President Joe Biden last year asked the VA to examine the impact of hotspots and other airborne hazards. Karine Jean-Pierre, the new White House press secretary, said Wednesday that passage of the bill “would be a welcome and long-awaited achievement” for veterans.
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