By Jessica Dean and Ali Zaslav, CNN
Updated: Wed, 18 May 2022 16:06:17 GMT
The two top-ranking senators on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Wednesday announced a long-sought bipartisan deal on a comprehensive bill that could help millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service.
"For far too long, our nation's veterans have been living with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform. Today, we're taking necessary steps to right this wrong with our proposal that'll provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve," Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and the committee's chairman, and Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican and ranking member of the panel, said in a joint statement.
The agreement is years in the making, and, if successful, would amount to a major bipartisan victory. Tester and Moran's joint statement signals their effort to win the 60 votes needed for the measure to pass the 50-50 Senate.
The achievement would also be a win for President Joe Biden, who has championed the legislation and has been personally affected by the issue. Biden believes burn pits may have caused the brain cancer that killed his son Beau, an Iraq War veteran, in 2015. During his State of the Union address earlier this year, Biden called on Congress to pass this legislation.
Tester and Moran's Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 would authorize "the most comprehensive toxic exposure package the Senate has ever delivered to veterans in this country's history," according to the two senators. The bill is named in honor of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died in 2020 from toxic exposure tied to his military service, and is an amended version of the Honoring Our PACT Act that passed the House earlier this year.
Burn pits seen as this generation's Agent Orange
Burn pits were commonly used to burn waste, including everyday trash, munitions, hazardous material and chemical compounds at military sites throughout Iraq and Afghanistan until about 2010.
These massive open-air burn pits, which were often operated at or near military bases, released dangerous toxins into the air that, upon exposure, may have caused short- and long-term health conditions, according to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. A 2020 member survey by the advocacy organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that 86% of respondents were exposed to burn pits or other toxins.
The VA has denied approximately 70% of veterans' burn pit claims since 9/11, according to previous statements by Moran.
Among its priorities, the legislation would widely expand health care resources and benefits to former military service members exposed to burn pits and could provide coverage for up to 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans. It adds 23 conditions related to burn pit and toxic exposure, including hypertension, to the VA's list of illnesses that have been incurred or exacerbated during military service, removing the burden for veterans to prove that their toxic exposure resulted in these conditions.
The bill also calls for investments in VA health care facilities, claims processing and the VA workforce while also strengthening federal research on toxic exposure, which has been a priority for Biden as well.
Negotiations have lasted over a year
The senators worked with key House members to negotiate the deal, including Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat and chairman of the chamber's Veterans' Affairs Committee, who introduced the House-passed bill, which the senators' agreement amends.
In March, the US House of Representatives passed sweeping burn pit legislation called the Honoring our PACT Act. The final vote was 256-174, with 34 Republicans joining all Democrats in support of passage.
Key changes agreed on by Tester and Moran would phase in presumptions, which connect the illness to military service making veterans eligible for health care, and amend the presumptive process, with the goal of easing and streamlining the change for the VA.
Comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 first responders and victims, has been a high-profile figure in the effort to raise attention to getting health care benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits in recent years.
"We can't wait any longer. This delay is unconscionable," Stewart said at a news conference outside the US Senate in March alongside Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, urging the chamber to pass comprehensive legislation to help toxic-exposed veterans.
"The bottom line is our country exposed our own veterans to poison for years, and we knew about it, and we did not act with urgency and appropriateness," Stewart said earlier this year at a virtual roundtable with the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. "And therefore, we've lost men and women who served this country. They've died out of our inaction."
Tester and Moran will now work to finalize the text of the bill ahead of a vote.
Schumer lauded the deal Wednesday and announced he intends for the Senate to take it up after the chamber returns from Memorial Day recess, which is the week of June 6.
"Our veterans, we'll see them on Memorial Day, are very eager for this bill," Schumer said in Senate floor remarks. "Our veterans need it, they deserve it, and we have a moral obligation to take care of those who have sacrificed so much for us."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that after the Senate passes the agreement, "the House will move to take it up and send it to President Biden's desk for his signature."
"Meeting the needs of our veterans is a sacred obligation," Pelosi added in her statement, thanking Biden, the Veteran Affairs' chairs, as well as "countless veterans and VSOs for their years-long advocacy and commitment to caring for those who don the uniform. Toxic exposures are a cost of war, and we cannot pinch pennies when it comes to addressing the needs and honoring the service of our servicemembers."
Takano said in a statement he's "elated" that Tester and Moran have come to an agreement.
"I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Tester and Senator Moran on the final details to ensure this vital legislation heads to President Biden's desk without delay," he said.
This story has been updated with additional developments.