Thousands of military veterans who are sick after being exposed to toxic smoke and dust while serving are facing a Senate obstacle 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 passed the House of Representatives in March. It would be much easier for veterans to get health care and benefits from the Veterans Health Administration if they got sick from the air they were breathing around huge cremation pits. open air. The military has used these pits in war zones around the world – sometimes the size of football pitches – to burn anything from human and medical waste to plastics and ammunition, setting them alight with jet fuel. .
As it stands, more than three-quarters of all veterans who submit claims for cancer, respiratory ailments and other illnesses they claim are caused by inhaling toxic smoke from the fireplace, their claims are denied, according to estimates by the Department of Veterans Affairs and service organizations.
The reason so few are approved is that the military and VA require injured combatants to prove that an illness is directly related to their service, which is extremely difficult when it comes to toxic exposures. The House PACT Act would facilitate this by declaring that any of the 3.5 million veterans who served in the global war on terrorism – including operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf – would be presumed eligible for benefits if they came down with any of 23 burn-related conditions.
Although 34 Republicans voted with Democrats to pass the bill in the House, only one Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, signaled support for the measure. At least 10 GOP members are expected to join all Democrats to avoid the threat of a filibuster in the Senate and allow the bill to advance on 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 cancer of the brain included in the bill’s list of eligibility requirements.
Senate Republicans are concerned about the measure, however, suggesting it will go unpaid, is too big, too 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 already struggled for years to meet the growing demand for troops deployed since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the America, with a backlog of late claims number in the hundreds of thousands. In addition to tackling hotspots, the bill would expand benefits for veterans who served at certain nuclear sites and cover more conditions related to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, among several others. problems.
While the bill gradually covers new groups of beneficiaries over 10 years, some Republicans involved in drafting fireplace legislation worry it might be too much.
Senator Mike Rounds (RS.D.), a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, summed up the concern as stemming from the promise of major aid “which might look really good,” but the bottom line is that those “who really need the care would never enter a VA facility.
Senator Thom Tillis (RN.C.), another member of the panel, agreed. “What concerns us is that you now have a backlog of 222,000 cases, and if you implement, by legislative decree, the 23 presumptions, we will go from one and a half million to two and a half million backlogs. he said. Tillis advanced his burn pit bill would leave it to the military and VA to determine which illnesses were automatically presumed to be service-related. This count will likely cover fewer people. “So the question we have is, while making a new promise, are we going to break a promise for all those veterans who need care today?”
Republicans have insisted they want to do something to help veterans who are falling increasingly sick with illnesses that seem linked to toxic exposure. Approximately 300,000 veterans have registered with the VAs combustion chamber register.
Senator 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 chair of the committee, advocating a more phased process to expand access to benefits and define which illnesses would qualify.
The event was designed to show what would easily win bipartisan support in the Senate while the House was still working on its bill.
Veterans service organizations, which try to avoid taking partisan positions, have welcomed these efforts. But they have also made it clear that they like the House bill. More than 40 of the groups endorsed the PACT law before it was passed by the lower house.
Aleks Morosky, government affairs specialist for the Wounded Warrior Project, plans to meet with senators this month in hopes of advancing the PACT Act.
“It is an urgent matter. I mean, people are dying,” Morosky said.
He added that he thinks some minor changes and input from the VA would eliminate the kind of issues the senators are raising.
“This bill has been meticulously crafted, and these are the provisions that veterans need,” Morosky said. “The VA tells us they can implement it the same way they’ve implemented a lot of people coming into the system in the past.”
He highlighted the recent expansion of Agent Orange Benefits Navy Veterans and in testimony by VA Secretary Denis McDonough before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in March. McDonough widely supported legislation, but said the VA would need a new rental authority to ensure it had adequate facilities, as well as to have more say in adding illnesses to cover.
Senate Republicans aren’t so sure about the VA’s ability to absorb such a large pool of new patients. Tillis and Rounds suggested that one solution would be to dramatically expand access to care that veterans can seek outside of the VA. They pointed to the Mission Act, a law passed in 2018 that sought to grant veterans access to private health care. Some critics say it has no kept his promise. It was also expensive, requiring emergency loans of Congress.
“You better think about having community care — because there’s no way to increase the medical infrastructure to provide that just through the VA,” Tillis said.
Tester said in a statement that the committee is working on McDonough’s demands — and may have an amended bill for a vote before Memorial Day.
“In addition to proposing historic reform for all generations of veterans exposed to toxic substances, I am working to ensure that this legislation provides VA with additional resources and powers to hire more staff, create new facilities and making critical investments to better ensure it can meet the current and future needs of our nation’s veterans,” Tester said.
Whether or not these changes satisfy enough Republicans remains to be seen.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.), who chairs the Armed Forces Subcommittee on Personnel and earlier drafted a bill on fireplaces, said neither the cost nor fears about problems of implementation should not hinder the passage of the bill. His proposal was incorporated into the House PACT Act.
“To deny service due to lack of resources or understaffing is an outrageous statement,” Gillibrand said. “We promised these men and women when they went to war that when they returned, we would protect them. And it is our solemn obligation. And if he needs more resources, we will provide them with more resources.
She predicted that Republicans would come to help pass a bill.
“I’m optimistic, actually. I think we just need a little more time to talk to more Republicans to get everyone on board,” she said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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