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Lawmakers reach deal to help vets exposed to toxic burn pits

President Biden has pushed for more coverage for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)
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Senate lawmakers Wednesday reached bipartisan agreement on legislation to expand health care and disability benefits to millions of veterans exposed to toxic chemicals during their military service.

The deal announced by top senators with oversight over veterans’ issues paves the way for sweeping changes to the federal government’s treatment of combat veterans exposed to burn pits and other airborne toxins during the Gulf War and post-9/11 conflicts by expanding eligibility for benefits to about 3.5 million men and women.

The issue has gained political currency as President Biden has wondered publicly whether burn pits were connected to the brain cancer that killed his 46-year-old son, Beau Biden, and vowed to help other veterans exposed to the toxins.

Biden wonders publicly whether burn pits caused his son’s death. Activists want him to do more on the issue.

The Department of Veterans Affairs had for years cited a lack of evidence linking cancers and other illnesses to pits the military used to dispose of garbage, equipment and human waste by setting it on fire, letting off thick, black toxic smoke. The department had denied about 70 percent of claims related to burn pits, according to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s top Republican, Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.)

More conclusive research took years as a widening circle of veterans’ advocates and families took up a 13-year fight to ensure that multiple illnesses would automatically be covered.

“It’s been a long road, and we’ve lost a lot of people along the way,” said Rosie Lopez Torres, a Texas woman who co-founded Burn Pits 360 in 2009 with her husband, Le Roy Torres, an Army reservist who developed a rare lung disease and other ailments after serving in Iraq. Torres eventually lost his job as a state trooper due to his health ailments, and his lawsuit to require the state of Texas to make reasonable accommodations and protect him from discrimination is now before the Supreme Court.

“Some shaming had to happen,” Rosie Torres said of the movement to win benefits, which attracted corporate and support from celebrities such as television host Jon Stewart.

In a joint statement, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Moran called the agreement with House leaders “the most comprehensive toxic exposure package the Senate has ever delivered to veterans in this country’s history.”

The Senate is expected to take up the legislation in early June, and Biden said last month that if Congress passes a comprehensive bill he would “sign it immediately.”

The legislation, an amended version of a bill that passed the House in March, is named in honor of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who deployed to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard and died of lung cancer in 2020. A summary issued by Tester and Moran keeps key elements of a bill the House passed in March, adding 23 illnesses, many of them rare cancers, as automatic qualifiers for VA health-care benefits and monthly disability checks.

But the compromise would phase in new presumptive conditions and streamline the change for VA, which is struggling to whittle down a backlog of disability claims created in part by delays to medical examinations during the pandemic.

The deal announced Wednesday also broadens coverage for Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange, adding Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll to the list of areas where exposure would result in presumptive coverage.

Federal research on toxic exposure would increase, along with training for VA employees and other investments in claims processing. The legislation would also create a process to establish other conditions that could be covered in the future.

The House bill passed by a wide margin. But many Republicans opposed its cost, estimated at more than $208 billion. The Senate did not release a cost estimate for the new plan.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said in a statement that he was “elated” at the agreement, signaling passage by both chambers.

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