Baltimore Sun

Senate approves bill to aid military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits

- By Kevin Freking

WASHINGTON — A bill enhancing health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits won final approval in the Senate on Tuesday, ending a brief stalemate over the measure that had infuriated advocates and inspired some to camp outside the Capitol.

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 86-11. It now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law. He has said the bill “makes good on our sacred obligation” to care for veterans and their families.

The Senate had overwhelmi­ngly approved the legislatio­n in June, but a do-over was required to make a technical fix. That process derailed when Republican­s made a late attempt to change another aspect of the bill last week and blocked it.

The delay outraged veterans groups and advocates. It also placed

GOP senators in the uncomforta­ble position of delaying the top legislativ­e priority of service organizati­ons this session of Congress.

A group of veterans and their families have been camping out at the Capitol since that vote. They were also in the galleries as senators cast their votes.

“You can go home knowing the good and great thing you have done and accomplish­ed for the United States of America,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told them.

The legislatio­n expands access to health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for millions who served near burn pits. It directs the VA to presume that certain respirator­y illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.

Roughly 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data and informatio­n from the Defense Department.

The military used burn pits to dispose of such things as chemicals, cans, tires, plastics and medical and human waste.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War era veterans and survivors also stand to benefit. The bill adds hypertensi­on as a presumptiv­e disease associated with Agent Orange exposure.

The Congressio­nal Budget Office projected about 600,000 of 1.6 million living Vietnam vets would be eligible for increased compensati­on, though only about half would have severe enough diagnoses to warrant more compensati­on.

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