Senate Passes Bill to Expand Benefits for Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday approved a bill to create a new rights program to treat veterans who may have been exposed to toxins from burning waste pits at U.S. military bases, and sent President Biden legislation that would care would expand to an estimated 3.5 million people.
The bill was passed by a unilateral bipartisan vote, 86 to 11, just days after Republicans withdrew their support in a dispute over how to pay for benefits, jeopardized legislation and sparked days of angry protests from veterans who turned their backs. gathered outside the Capitol to demand action.
The measure would be the largest extension of benefits to veterans since the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which improved access to care for Vietnam War veterans exposed to the toxic herbicide that endangered generations of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians.
In effect, the new legislation would assume that every US military member stationed in a combat zone in the past 32 years could have been exposed to toxic substances, and would allocate an estimated $280 billion over the next decade to treat ailments. related to those exposures and streamline veterans’ access to such care.
The House passed the bill last month, and Mr Biden, who favored the measure, was soon to sign it. He has speculated that toxic substances from fire pits contributed to the brain cancer that killed his son Beau Biden, who served in Iraq, in 2015.
The legislation had gained widespread support on Capitol Hill, but just as the Senate was expected to be acquitted last week, Republicans in the chamber abruptly withdrew their support, urging Democrats to give them a chance to use available funding for limit the treatment of veterans.
The bill would provide guaranteed funding for the treatment of veterans exposed to toxins by establishing a special fund that would not be subject to Congress’ annual spending process. Pennsylvania Republican Senator Patrick J. Toomey warned that the measure was written to allow for massive new spending that had nothing to do with caring for veterans.
Mr Toomey tried and failed to limit the amount of money that could be put into the fund each year, a move that Veterans Affairs secretary Denis McDonough had warned could lead to “rationing of veterinary care”.
Mr. Toomey also suggested shifting the veterans treatment fund to so-called discretionary spending after a decade, meaning the Department of Veterans Affairs would have to ask for funding every year. That would subject funding to Congressional approval and the annual battle of partisan spending on Capitol Hill, rather than guaranteed.
Democrats opposed both efforts, saying there was no need to change the legislation.
“This is a bill that will work for this country, that will work for this country’s taxpayers, and it will especially work for the veterans and their families,” said Montana Democrat Senator Jon Tester and chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Susan Zeier, the mother-in-law of Heath Robinson, a member of the Ohio Army National Guard after whom the bill is named, protested outside the Capitol for days to urge the Senate to approve the measure before heading off for summer recess. .
Mr. Robinson served in Iraq and died in 2020 after battling lung cancer believed to be linked to burn exposure, and the bill is called the Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson delivering on our pledge to address the Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022.
“For me and my daughter, this is the satisfaction that we have kept our promise to Heath,” said Ms Zeier. “We hope that families don’t suffer the same as we do.”