House backs bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burning fireplaces
The measure has the support of major veterans groups across the country and underscores the continued cost of war years after the fighting ended. The bill’s fate is unclear in the Senate, but if passed, it would increase spending by more than $300 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
“If we’re not willing to pay the price of war, we shouldn’t be going,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The bill passed by a vote of 256 to 174, with 34 Republicans joining all House Democrats in voting for it.
The bill would also provide new or increased disability benefits to thousands of veterans with cancer or respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. The VA would assume that the veterans developed their disease as a result of exposure to toxic substances while on duty.
Supporters say the bill is a clear acknowledgment by Congress that veterans have been exposed to toxic substances, suffer from them, and that the process of proving to the VA that their illness was caused by their exposure is too cumbersome.
Opponents say the legislation would provide health and disability benefits to many veterans whose conditions may have nothing to do with their military service. They expressed concern that the influx of cases would tax an already stressed VA system, leading to longer wait times for health care and the processing of disability claims.
The political dynamic surrounding the vote was evident in the House on Wednesday as dozens of Democrats, some from competitive districts, spoke in favor of the bill.
“This bill addresses the true cost of war and to oppose it would be a vote against our military and veterans,” said Rep. Mark Takano of California, Democratic chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Republicans have generally left it to Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa to oppose the bill. Miller-Meeks, a U.S. Army veteran, said she frequently hears of Iowa veterans waiting months or even years for the benefits they’ve earned, and said the problems would only grow if the bill becomes law. She also noted that the projected cost of the bill is higher than the combined budgets of nine government departments.
“We’re not doing the right thing for our veterans by being fiscally irresponsible on their behalf,” Miller-Meeks said.
The Army routinely used open pits to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste, and other materials in open pits during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2020 study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that existing health studies provide insufficient evidence to determine whether exposure to combustion fireplace emissions is linked to adverse respiratory conditions. such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer. The study authors said uncertainty does not mean there is no association – only that there is not enough data to draw firm conclusions.
President Joe Biden has raised suspicions that his son’s death from brain cancer was linked to fire pits that were used while Major Beau Biden served in Iraq.
“And they go home, many of the fittest and best-trained warriors in the world, never the same – headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin,” he said. Biden said during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
Biden said it’s unclear whether a burning hearth caused his son’s brain cancer or the illnesses of so many others who served, “but I’m determined to find out whatever we can.”
One after another, lawmakers supporting the bill cited individual veterans in their districts who had fallen ill or died after repeated exposure to burning fireplaces.
“This is a self-inflicted DOD wound that our military inflicted on our military, and now they are dying as delayed victims of war,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif. “We have to save lives today. It’s a life or death situation.”
The White House approved the House bill, which goes beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. It also adds hypertension to the list of illnesses that Vietnam veterans are believed to have developed due to exposure to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange. The CBO estimates that about 600,000 of the 1.6 million veterans who served in Vietnam and are already receiving disability compensation also have hypertension or high blood pressure. They would be entitled to increased compensation, which would depend on the severity of the illness.
Biden asked the VA last year to examine the impact of hotspots and other airborne hazards. He supported the increase in the number of conditions the VA presumes to be caused by toxic exposure from burn pits.
In November, the White House announced that soldiers exposed to combustion fireplaces who have developed one of three specific illnesses – asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis – within 10 years can receive disability benefits. The House bill builds on that effort with nearly two dozen presumptive conditions, and perhaps more to come in the coming years.
The bill also provides retroactive benefits for veterans whose disability claims have been denied and for survivors of deceased veterans.
The amounts are significant. For example, Vietnam veterans eligible for retroactive payments due to hypertension from Agent Orange exposure would receive retroactive payments of about $13,500, while survivors would receive about $100,000, said the CBO in a December report.
Meanwhile, some 268,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan whose claims were denied would receive retroactive payments averaging about $50,000. And some 5,500 survivors would receive about $160,000 on average, CBO said.
The Senate unanimously passed a much narrower bill extending the length of time veterans receive guaranteed VA care. But House Democrats said the Senate legislation was only a fraction of what was needed.