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Senate approves expanded benefits for vets exposed to burn pits

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday approved a wide-ranging expansion of health care and disability benefits for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan in response to concerns about their exposure to toxic burn pits.

Passing the bill by an 84-14 vote sets a course that could help millions who served after 9/11 and caps years of lobbying by veterans’ groups and others comparing cremation pits the herbicide Agent Orange faced by Vietnam-era veterans in Southeast Asia.

The law is expected to increase federal spending by about $283 billion over 10 years and does not include offsetting spending cuts or tax increases to fund it. The House of Representatives approved similar legislation in March that would have cost more than $320 billion over 10 years.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said after the Senate passage that the House of Representatives would “act quickly” to include the bill and send it to President Joe Biden for signature. biden has encouraged the effort. In a statement after the vote, Biden said the law “fulfills our sacred obligation to care for veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors.” He urged the House to act quickly “so I can sign it immediately.” “

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The military routinely used open cremation pits lit with jet fuel to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill would expand military veterans’ entitlements to medical care by the Department of Veterans Affairs by extending coverage by 10 years after discharge instead of the current five years.

The legislation would also assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers are linked to exposure to charcoal pits, allowing veterans to receive disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness resulted from their service. Currently, more than 70% of disability requests related to exposure to burn pits are denied by the VA due to a lack of evidence, scientific data and Department of Defense information.

The legislation would also benefit many Vietnam War-era veterans by adding high blood pressure to the list of conditions believed to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange. And it would extend Agent Orange’s suspicions to veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam and American Samoa.

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., described the legislation as “the biggest advance in veteran health care in decades.” He said dozens of America’s veterans have gone out to serve their country in perfect health, exposed to toxic exposures only to come back and get sick and often found out when applying for disability benefits that they weren’t eligible.

“It’s a bewildering outrage for our nation’s heroes to sacrifice everything for our country, only to come home, get sick, and find the VA isn’t there for them,” Schumer said.

A 2020 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that health studies provided insufficient evidence to determine whether exposure to emissions from burn pits is linked to 27 adverse respiratory diseases, including asthma, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer. The study’s authors said the uncertainty doesn’t mean there isn’t a link — just that there isn’t enough data to draw firm conclusions.

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But lawmakers said stories from voters tell a different and more definitive story, and they’re reluctant to wait for an irrefutable link between veterans’ illnesses and their exposure to toxic burn pits.

“Anytime you need to make that connection airtight, it’s difficult with a lot of things,” said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind. “In this case, I think the evidence is such that there is a causal relationship. That’s what I hear from so many were over there and got pretty close to symptoms after their shift was over. It’s not every now and then. You hear it quite often.

Most Republicans vote in favor of the law, but some voted against it on tax grounds.

“That’s way too much money,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said of the $283 billion projected price tag.

An expansion in health care and disability benefits could also strain an already stressed VA system, which lawmakers have sought to counter by approving 31 new medical clinics in 19 states and encouraging investment in computer systems for processing disability claims.

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Most Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against this chamber’s version of the law. The Senate version reduced some of the costs early on by gradually rolling out certain performance improvements. Sen. Jon Tester, the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the bill was about “righting a wrong that’s been ignored for too damn long.”

“War costs are always incurred,” Tester said, “and those costs are never fully paid when the war ends.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/16/senate-oks-enhanced-benefits-for-vets-exposed-to-burn-pits/ Senate approves expanded benefits for vets exposed to burn pits

Sarah Y. Kim

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