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G.O.P. Reversal Imperils Burn Pits Bill to Treat Veterans

WASHINGTON — A widely supported bill to expand medical care for millions of veterans who may have been exposed to toxins from burning waste pits on U.S. military bases has become entangled in a partisan battle over spending, leaving fate uncertain after a large group of Republicans withdrew their support.

The legislation, which would be one of the largest veterans benefit extensions in history, was expected to easily pass the Senate last week after an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House. An earlier draft passed the Senate in a skewed vote in June, with 34 Republicans voting in favor.

But Republicans abruptly withdrew their support, all but eight being against it last week. They did this after Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey raised concerns that the measure — which would create a new rights program within the Department of Veterans Affairs to fund the treatment of veterans exposed to toxins — could lead to huge expenditure increases.

The turnaround also came after Democrats struck a surprise deal to push through a sweeping climate, energy and tax plan this month across a united Republican opposition — a central part of their domestic agenda that Republicans have derided as a splurge.

New York Democrat and Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer said on Sunday that he scheduled to schedule another vote on the veteran account this week.

The Republican turnaround has stunned congressional supporters and veteran groups who had seen the trouble-shooting legislation, a top priority of President Biden, as a foregone conclusion.

In the days since, veterans have gathered at the Capitol on the steps leading to the Senate, displaying placards, photos of lost loved ones and flags protesting the delay in legislation and vigils even during weekend rains. Comedian Jon Stewart, a leading activist on the bill, said at a news conference last week that the veterans had no intention of leaving until lawmakers acted.

Exposure to garbage fires would have led to some respiratory diseases and disorders among veterans such as bronchial asthma, allergic rhinitis, sleep apnea, bronchitis and sinusitis, as well as various cancers. The issue was especially poignant for Mr Biden, who has speculated that exposure to toxic substances contributed to the death of his son Beau Biden, who died in 2015, several years after serving in Iraq.

The measure would create a new, guaranteed funding stream — not subject to congressional appropriations — for the treatment of veterans exposed to toxins. Republicans warned that this could lead to massive, unchecked spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We want to ensure that the PACT Act is not used as a means to drastically increase spending beyond the bill’s goal of covering specific health care and benefits for veterans,” Mr. Toomey said last week.

He proposed imposing an annual cap and ending the right after 10 years, meaning funding to care for veterans exposed to toxins would not be guaranteed unless Congress voted for it.

VA secretary Denis McDonough said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the proposal would lead to “rationing of veterinary care.”

Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat of Montana and the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, denounced the Republicans’ turnaround, saying that by blocking the bill’s enactment, they were essentially “taking advantage of the people affected by a war we have unleashed. ”

Mr. Tester and some other Democrats said they plan to put pressure on Republicans to get them to switch positions again and support the bill. Mr. Schumer has said he will give Republicans the opportunity to submit their own proposal for financing the measure.

The legislation would affect an estimated 3.5 million veterans and would violate the Agent Orange Act that restricts access to care for Vietnam War veterans exposed to the toxic compound used as a herbicide. used, endangering endangered generations of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians.

The bill would make it easier for U.S. military personnel stationed in combat zones for the past 32 years to qualify for VA medical care and allocate an estimated $280 billion over the next decade to treat conditions related to those exposures.

It also orders the department to identify dozens of cancers and diseases that may be related to exposure to toxic substances and to include such exposures in patient questionnaires to reach patients who may not be aware that their condition may be related. with burns. The benefits would be phased in over time, meaning veterans who were recently discharged would have to wait more than a decade to receive care.

As of July, more than a third of all veterans deployed to Southwest Asia since September 11, 2001 have filed for disability compensation for respiratory illness, making them the most common ailments, according to the agency. Of those who filed a claim, only 64 percent were awarded.

Advocacy groups that followed the legislation said they were encouraged by reports that the measure could be back on track soon.

Sarah Verardo, CEO of The Independence Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to helping wounded veterans, said the group has “monitored congressional movements over the weekend” and is “very optimistic about the change in leadership tone.” .

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