House passes bill to expand health benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits
The House on Thursday passed legislation that would expand access to health care for veterans exposed to toxins, such as chemicals emanating from burn pits, during their military service.
Lawmakers passed the bill largely along party lines, 256-174. Thirty-four Republicans joined Democrats in support.
Passage of the bill came two days after President Biden announced during his State of the Union address that the Department of Veterans Affairs will add nine respiratory cancers to its list of service-connected disabilities to expand benefits eligibility for affected veterans.
The bill passed in the House would expand VA health care eligibility for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits by establishing a presumption of service connection for about two dozen types of respiratory illnesses — like chronic bronchitis and asthma — and cancers.
It’s estimated that about 3.5 million U.S. service members have been exposed to burn pits, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit veterans organization. A survey from the nonprofit found that 86 percent of its members reported exposure to burn pits or other toxics, with 89 percent reporting symptoms that might have been caused by that exposure.
“When we sent our service members into harm’s way, we made a pact to care for them when they came home. But for too long, Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs have been slow to accept responsibility and cost of that care, citing high costs or lack of absolute, scientific proof of illness connections to service,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.). “The result is a disability claims process that is cumbersome and one that places the burden of proof for toxic exposure on veterans themselves.”
“When our country goes to war, we don’t nickel and dime the Department of Defense. And we shouldn’t try to pinch pennies when it comes to covering the care for toxic-exposed veterans,” Takano said.
Biden said during his State of the Union address that his late son, Beau Biden, may have developed his brain cancer from exposure to a burn pit while serving in Iraq.
Such burn pits were often used at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan to incinerate garbage like human waste, munitions, plastics, jet fuel and paint.
“They came home, many of the world’s fittest and best trained warriors in the world, never the same,” Biden said. “Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin.”
That was the part of his address interrupted by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who in a breach of decorum yelled out that Biden put service members in coffins, referencing the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer.
Republicans argued the legislation could exacerbate VA backlogs and would add too much to the deficit, given its nearly $300 billion price tag over a decade.
“We are not doing right by our veterans by being fiscally irresponsible in their name. And I say that as a veteran myself,” said Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa), a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee who previously served in the Army.
Republicans further pointed to the Senate passage of a similar but narrower bill last month to expand post-9/11 combat veterans’ window of eligibility for health benefits from five to 10 years after discharge from military service, arguing that the House should just clear that measure and send it to Biden’s desk.
“Every day that the House fails to send it to the president is another day that a sick veteran doesn’t get the care they need,” said Rep. Mike Bost (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced more comprehensive legislation similar to what passed in the House on Thursday that would create new presumptions of service connection for veterans exposed to toxins and boost federal research into toxic exposures.
It’s expected that the House and Senate will ultimately reconcile those measures and send a combined package for Biden’s signature.
Rachel Frazin contributed.