WASHINGTON (AP) — A bill improving health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burning stoves won final approval in the Senate on Tuesday, ending a brief stalemate. on the measure that had infuriated defenders and inspired some to camp outside the Capitol.
The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 86-11. It now goes to President Joe Biden’s office to be signed into law. Biden described the legislation as the biggest expansion of benefits for service-related health conditions in 30 years and the biggest bill ever designed to address exposure to combustion fireplaces.
“I look forward to signing this bill into law, so that veterans and their families and caregivers impacted by toxic exposures finally get the benefits and comprehensive health care they have earned and deserve.” Biden said.
The Senate had overwhelmingly approved the legislation in June, but an overhaul was needed to provide a technical fix. That process was derailed when Republicans belatedly tried to change another aspect of the bill last week and blocked it from moving forward.
The abrupt delay has outraged groups and veteran advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart. It also put GOP senators in the awkward position of delaying the top legislative priority for service organizations this session of Congress.
A group of veterans and their families have been camping at the Capitol since that vote. They had endured thunderstorms and Washington’s notorious summer humidity, but they were in the stands when the senators voted.
“You can go home knowing the good and great thing you have done and accomplished for the United States of America,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y, told them.
The legislation expands access to health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for millions of people who served near hotspots. It also orders the VA to presume that certain respiratory diseases 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 sickness resulted from their service.
Approximately 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data, and information from the Department of Defense.
The military used burn pits to dispose of items such as chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, and medical and human waste.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War veterans and survivors are also expected to benefit from the legislation. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a suspected illness associated with exposure to Agent Orange.
The Congressional Budget Office projected that about 600,000 of the 1.6 million living Vietnamese veterans would be eligible for increased compensation, although only about half had diagnoses serious enough to warrant greater compensation.
Additionally, veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will be presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. That’s an additional 50,000 veterans and survivors of deceased veterans who would get compensation for illnesses believed to have been caused by their exposure to the herbicide, the CBO predicted.
The bill also authorizes 31 large VA medical health clinics and research facilities in 19 states.
The bill is expected to increase federal deficits by about $277 billion over 10 years.
The bill was a years-long effort started by veterans and their families who blamed fire pits used in Iraq and Afghanistan for the respiratory problems and other illnesses veterans suffered after returning home. at their home. It was named after Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson of Ohio, who died in 2020 of cancer he attributed to prolonged exposure to burning fireplaces. His widow, Danielle Robinson, was a guest of First Lady Jill Biden at the President’s State of the Union address earlier this year.
Stewart, the former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” also brought increased exposure to the burn hearth diseases veterans faced. He was also in the gallery to watch the vote on Tuesday. He cried and held his head in his hand as the final vote began.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little,” he said after the vote. “And hopefully we learn a lesson.”
The Chamber was the first to act on the fireplace legislation. An earlier version approved by the House in March was expected to increase spending by more than $320 billion over 10 years, but senators cut some of the costs early on by phasing in some benefit improvements. They also added funds for staffing to help the VA keep up with the projected increase in demand for health care and an increase in disability claims.
Some GOP senators still fear the bill could increase delays to the VA due to increased demand from veterans seeking care or disability compensation.
“What we’ve learned is that the VA can’t deliver on their promises because they don’t have the capacity to handle the increase,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
The senses. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., led efforts to push the bill through the Senate. After the pass, Tester told reporters he received a call from Biden, thanking him for “taking a big weight off” his shoulder.
For Biden, the question is very personal. He raised the possibility that burning in Iraq was responsible for the death of his son Beau.
“We don’t know for sure if a hotbed was the cause of his brain cancer or the illnesses of so many of our soldiers,” Biden said during his State of the Union address. “But I’m determined to find out whatever we can.”
Moran said when the bill failed to pass last week he was disappointed but remembered the strength of protesters who had been sitting outside in the scorching heat for days.
“Thank you to the United States Senate for demonstrating when there is something right and a good cause, this place always works,” Moran said.
Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.