“For far too long, our nation’s veterans have been living with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform. Today, we’re taking necessary steps to right this wrong with our proposal that’ll provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve,” Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and the committee’s chairman, and Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican and ranking member of the panel, said in a joint statement.
The agreement is years in the making, and, if successful, would amount to a major bipartisan victory. Tester and Moran’s joint statement signals their effort to win the 60 votes needed for the measure to pass the 50-50 Senate.
Burn pits seen as this generation’s Agent Orange
Burn pits were commonly used to burn waste, including everyday trash, munitions, hazardous material and chemical compounds at military sites throughout Iraq and Afghanistan until about 2010.
Among its priorities, the legislation would widely expand health care resources and benefits to former military service members exposed to burn pits and could provide coverage for up to 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans. It adds 23 conditions related to burn pit and toxic exposure, including hypertension, to the VA’s list of illnesses that have been incurred or exacerbated during military service, removing the burden for veterans to prove that their toxic exposure resulted in these conditions.
The bill also calls for investments in VA health care facilities, claims processing and the VA workforce while also strengthening federal research on toxic exposure, which has been a priority for Biden as well.
Negotiations have lasted over a year
The senators worked with key House members to negotiate the deal, including Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat and chairman of the chamber’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee, who introduced the House-passed bill, which the senators’ agreement amends.
In March, the US House of Representatives passed sweeping burn pit legislation called the Honoring our PACT Act. The final vote was 256-174, with 34 Republicans joining all Democrats in support of passage.
Key changes agreed on by Tester and Moran would phase in presumptions, which connect the illness to military service making veterans eligible for health care, and amend the presumptive process, with the goal of easing and streamlining the change for the VA.
Comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 first responders and victims, has been a high-profile figure in the effort to raise attention to getting health care benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits in recent years.
“We can’t wait any longer. This delay is unconscionable,” Stewart said at a news conference outside the US Senate in March alongside Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, urging the chamber to pass comprehensive legislation to help toxic-exposed veterans.
“The bottom line is our country exposed our own veterans to poison for years, and we knew about it, and we did not act with urgency and appropriateness,” Stewart said earlier this year at a virtual roundtable with the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “And therefore, we’ve lost men and women who served this country. They’ve died out of our inaction.”
Tester and Moran will now work to finalize the text of the bill and are pushing to hold a vote as soon as next week, though it’s unclear when Schumer will bring it to the floor.
CNN’s Clare Foran, Kristin Wilson and Megan Vazquez contributed to this report.