The House yesterday overwhelmingly passed measures to aid members of the armed services called to active duty in the Persian Gulf War and to quell a long-running dispute over the health effects of Agent Orange.
In the latest congressional attempt to soften the financial impact of the war on reservists, the House voted 414 to 0 for legislation to protect active-duty military personnel from evictions, civil suits and loss of health insurance.
Under current law, families of active-duty personnel cannot be evicted from apartments or homes if their monthly rent is less than $150. The bill passed yesterday increases that threshold to $1,200. The measure also provides that those called to active duty would automatically have health insurance reinstated upon their return to civilian life and delays until July 1 any civil actions against them by creditors.
Also, physicians called to active duty would be allowed to have their medical malpractice insurance premiums suspended and coverage reinstated once they return from active duty.
The Agent Orange bill, approved on a 412 to 0 vote, codifies a directive by Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward J. Derwinski that Vietnam veterans suffering from two forms of cancer -- non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and soft-tissue sarcoma -- receive disability benefits.
The measure also gives to the National Academy of Sciences the decisive role in determining whether other forms of illness are due to exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide widely used in Vietnam that contains dioxin.
The academy is charged with reviewing scientific studies of further health effects of Agent Orange, and the VA secretary would then decide whether veterans suffering from those diseases are eligible for disability pay.
The academy replaces a task force established during the Reagan administration, which veterans groups have charged overlooked evidence that Agent Orange has caused cancers, birth defects and other illnesses among military personnel who served in Vietnam.
The Bush administration, which has been skeptical of previous legislative efforts on Agent Orange, announced yesterday that the president will sign the bill, which is expected to pass the Senate today.
Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), a leader in the congressional effort to pass Agent Orange legislation, said the measure "ends an endless debate over evidence and finally takes action to recognize and address the problems of Agent Orange victims."