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House passes bill to expand health care for veterans exposed to toxins; 174 Republicans vote against

The bill would expand health-care eligibility for veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxins; it must now be reconciled with the Senate’s version of the legislation

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), joined by fellow lawmakers and veterans advocates, speaks at a news conference on toxins legislation March 2, 2022, at the Capitol. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The House on Thursday passed a bill that would expand health-care eligibility for veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxins during their service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill, which could provide health coverage for up to 3.5 million veterans, was passed on a vote of 256 to 174, with 34 Republicans joining all Democrats. The bill is known as the Honoring our PACT Act, the acronym denoting Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics.

The U.S. military used burn pits throughout Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of waste, medical and hazardous materials, and jet fuel, exposing veterans to toxins that have caused long-lasting medical problems. Veterans who have been exposed often face difficult disability benefit claims processes with the Department of Veterans Affairs to get necessary health care.

Republicans who voted in opposition argued that the measure, which has a $300 billion price tag over 10 years, would add too much to the country’s deficit and exacerbate backlogs at VA.

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) — a physician, a 24-year military veteran and a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee — argued against the House bill on the floor, saying the Senate’s version, which is narrower in scope, is a more responsible measure.

“We are not doing right by our veterans by being fiscally irresponsible in their name. And I say that as a veteran myself,” Miller-Meeks said.

Under the House bill, 23 health conditions, including respiratory conditions and cancers, would be considered to have either been caused by or exacerbated by military service, meaning veterans with these conditions would no longer have to prove that they were caused by their exposure to the toxins.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), during a news conference Thursday, said she was “amazed and surprised” by Republicans’ criticism of the bill’s price tag.

“It’s a cost of war,” Pelosi said. “For the Republicans to go to the floor and say that veterans really don’t want this help because it’s going to cost money, and they’re more concerned about the budget [than] they are about their health. Oh, really? You just gave tax cuts in 2017 to the richest people in America.”

“Tax cuts for the rich, cancer for our veterans,” she added. “That’s how we see this discussion.”

Among the 174 Republicans opposing the bill were the top three party leaders — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Reps. Steve Scalise (La.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.).

Addressing burn pits and their effects has also been a priority of President Biden, who brought up the issue during his State of the Union address Tuesday.

Biden said Congress has to do more to assist veterans experiencing long-lasting health issues after being exposed to toxins while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying it was an issue close to his heart. For years, Biden has said the death of his son Beau might have been caused by exposure to toxins while he served in Iraq and Kosovo. Beau Biden was a major in the Army National Guard.

“I’ve always believed that we have a sacred obligation to equip those we send to war, and care for those and their families when they come home,” Biden said during his address.

The House bill was introduced by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and pushed by Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), a physician. On the House floor Thursday, Ruiz argued that the House owed it to veterans and those who lost a loved one to toxins to pass the bill.

“This is a self-inflicted DOD wound that our military did to our service members, and now they are dying as delayed casualties of war due to those exposures,” Ruiz said. “We need to save lives today.”

Advocates and lawmakers, including Pelosi, rallied in favor of the bill Wednesday. The legislation has received backing from veterans groups and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart, who has long advocated for veterans and 9/11 first responders and victims.

“The learning curve of this country over how we treat our veterans when they come home from war is so painfully slow, the pace is unacceptable,” Stewart said at the Wednesday rally, where he also dismissed criticism that the bill is too expensive.

“If we can’t bear the consequences of war, maybe we should consider not starting so many,” he said.

Takano said at the event Wednesday that “if we are to support the cost of starting and sustaining war, we must acknowledge the financial costs of supporting those veterans it creates when it comes home. We cannot renege on our responsibility because of sticker shock. We have a moral obligation to America’s veterans.”

The Senate bill, which passed in February with bipartisan support, only extends how long post-9/11 combat veterans are guaranteed VA care by expanding a window of health-care eligibility from five to 10 years after they’ve been discharged.

The Senate and House bills must be reconciled and a final version passed by Congress before heading to the president.

Jada Yuan in New York contributed to this report.