Senate GOP Puts Up Roadblocks To Bipartisan House Bill For Veterans’ Burn Pit Care

Thousands of military veterans sick after being exposed to toxic smoke and dust on duty face a Senate roadblock to ambitious legislation designed to provide them with care.

The Senate could begin work as early as this week on a bipartisan bill called the Honoring Our PACT Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in March. It would make it much easier for veterans to get health care and benefits from the Veterans Health Administration if they get sick from the air they breathe around huge open-air burn pits. The military used those pits in war zones around the world — sometimes the size of football fields — to burn everything from human and medical waste to plastic and ammunition, setting them on fire with jet fuel.

As it stands, according to Department of Veterans Affairs estimates, more than three-quarters of all veterans who make claims for cancer, respiratory failure and other illnesses they believe are caused by inhaling toxic smoke from the fire pit, turned down. and service organizations.

The reason so few have been approved is that the military and VA require wounded war fighters to prove that an illness is directly related to their service — something that is extremely difficult when it comes to exposure to toxic substances. The House PACT bill would make that easier by stating that each of the 3.5 million veterans who have served in the global war on terror — including operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf — are deemed eligible. claim benefits if they are confronted with any of 23 conditions related to the burns.

Although 34 Republicans voted with Democrats to pass the bill in the House, only one Republican, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, has expressed support for the measure. At least 10 GOP members should join all Democrats to avoid the threat of a Senate filibuster and allow the bill to go to President Joe Biden’s desk. Biden called on Congress to pass such legislation in his State of the Union address, citing the death of his son Beau Biden, who served in Iraq in 2008 and died in 2015 of glioblastoma, a listed brain cancer. of qualifying terms of the bill.

Senate Republicans express concern about the measure, but suggest it will not be paid for, it is too big and ambitious and could end up promising more than the government can deliver.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill would cost more than $300 billion over 10 years, and the VA has struggled for years to meet rising demand from troops deployed since the 2001 terror attacks on America, with a backlog of delayed claims amounting to the hundreds of thousands. In addition to addressing fire pits, the bill would expand benefits for veterans who have served at certain nuclear sites, and cover more conditions related to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, among several other issues.

As the bill moves into coverage for new groups of beneficiaries over the course of 10 years, some Republicans involved in writing fire pit legislation fear it’s all too much.

sen. Mike Rounds (RS.D.), a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, summed up the concern as stemming from promising a lot of help “that could look really good,” but the bottom line is that those “who really the care would never end up in a VA facility.”

sen. Thom Tillis (RN.C.), another member of the panel, agreed. “What we’re concerned about is you’re now 222,000 backlog, and if you implement the 23 assumptions with the approval of the law, we’ll go to one and a half million to two and a half million backlogs,” he said. . Tillis filed his own fire pit bill that would leave it to the military and VA to determine which illnesses were automatically associated with the service. That number will likely relate to fewer people. “So the question we have is, as we make a new promise, are we going to break a promise to all those veterans who need care today?”

Republicans have insisted they want to do something to help veterans who are increasingly sick with illnesses that appear to be linked to toxic exposure. About 300,000 veterans have signed up to the VA’s fire pit registry.

sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the top Republican on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, held a press conference in February with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the committee chair, argued for a more gradual process to access benefits and determine which diseases qualify.

The event was intended to showcase what would easily gain bipartisan support in the Senate while the House was still working on its bill.

Veterans’ service organizations, which try to avoid partisan views, have praised such efforts. But they have also made it clear that they like the bill. More than 40 of the groups approved the PACT bill before it was passed by the House of Representatives.

Aleks Morosky, a government affairs specialist for the Wounded Warrior Project, plans to meet with senators this month in hopes of promoting the PACT bill.

“This is an urgent problem. I mean, people are dying,” Morosky said.

He added that he believes some minor changes and input from the VA would eliminate the kinds of problems senators raise.

“This bill has been carefully crafted and these are the amenities veterans need,” Morosky said. “The VA tells us they can implement it like they’ve implemented large numbers of people in the past who have come into the system.”

He pointed to the recent expansion of Agent Orange benefits for Navy veterans and to the testimony of VA Secretary Denis McDonough before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in March. McDonough largely supported the legislation, but said the VA would need a new leasing authority to ensure it had adequate facilities, as well as have more say in adding diseases to be covered.

Senate Republicans aren’t too sure about the VA’s ability to take on such a large pool of new patients. Tillis and Rounds suggested one solution would be to significantly expand access to care veterans can seek outside of the VA. They pointed to the Mission Act, a law passed in 2018 intended to give veterans access to private health care. Some critics say it hasn’t lived up to its promise. It was also expensive, requiring emergency funding from Congress.

“You better think about having community care — because there’s no way you’re going to be able to ramp up the medical infrastructure to provide that purely through the VA,” Tillis said.

Tester said in a statement that the committee was working on McDonough’s requests — and could have an amended bill for a vote before Memorial Day.

“As well as driving historic reforms for all generations of toxic-exposed veterans, I am working to ensure that this legislation provides VA with additional resources and authorities to hire more staff, establish new facilities and make critical investments. to ensure it can meet the current and future needs of our nation’s veterans,” Tester said.

Whether those changes will satisfy enough Republicans remains to be seen.

sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.), chair of the Armed Forces Personnel Services Subcommittee and previously author of a fire pit bill, said neither the cost nor fear of implementation difficulties should stand in the way of passing the bill. Her proposal is included in the PACT Act of the House of Representatives.

“Refusing service due to lack of resources or lack of staff is an outrageous statement,” Gillibrand said. “We promised these men and women when they went into battle that we would protect them if they came back. And that is our solemn obligation. And if it needs more resources, we will give them more resources.”

She predicted that Republicans would come along to pass a bill.

“Actually, I’m optimistic. I think we just need a little more time to talk to more Republicans to get everyone on board,” she said.

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