WASHINGTON — A widely supported bill to expand medical care eligibility for millions of veterans who may have been exposed to toxins from burning garbage pits on U.S. military bases has ended up trapped in a partisan fight over spending, leaving his fate uncertain after a large group of Republicans withdrew their support.
The legislation, which would be one of the largest veterans’ benefit extensions in history, was expected to easily pass the Senate last week after receiving an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House. An earlier version passed the Senate in June on a lopsided vote, with 34 Republicans voting yes.
But Republicans abruptly withdrew their support, with all but eight opposing moving forward last week. They did so after Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, raised concerns that the measure – which would create a new compensation program within the Department of Veterans Affairs to fund treatment veterans exposed to toxins – could lead to a significant increase in expenditure.
The reversal also came after Democrats struck a surprise deal to push a sweeping climate, energy and fiscal plan through the United Republican Opposition this month – a central part of their national agenda that Republicans have called a frenzy. expenses.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and Majority Leader, said Sunday that he planned to schedule another vote on the veterans bill this week.
The U-turn by Republicans stunned congressional supporters and veterans groups who had seen the fire pit legislation, a top priority for President Biden, as a done deal.
In the days that followed, veterans gathered at the Capitol on the steps leading to the Senate, waving signs, photographs of lost loved ones and flags protesting the legislative delay and the vigil, even in the rain of the weekend. Comedian Jon Stewart, one of the bill’s leading campaigners, told a news conference last week that the veterans did not plan to leave until lawmakers acted.
Trash fire exposure is believed to have led to a number of respiratory ailments and diseases in veterans, such as bronchial asthma, allergic rhinitis, sleep apnea, bronchitis and sinusitis, as well as different types of cancer. The question was particularly poignant for Mr Biden, who speculated that toxic exposure contributed to the death of his son Beau Biden, who died in 2015 several years after serving in Iraq.
The measure would create a new stream of guaranteed funding — not subject to congressional appropriations — for the treatment of veterans exposed to toxins. Republicans have warned that this could lead to huge and uncontrolled spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We want to make sure that the PACT Act is not used as a way to dramatically increase spending outside of the bill’s purpose, which is to cover specific health care and benefits for veterans. “, Mr. Toomey said last week.
He proposed imposing an annual cap and ending the entitlement after 10 years, meaning funding for care of veterans exposed to toxins would not be guaranteed unless Congress votes to provide it.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the proposal would lead to “rationing of care for vets.”
Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, denounced the Republicans’ reversal, saying that by blocking the bill’s passage they “essentially took away benefits from people who were affected by a war that we have started”. ”
Mr. Tester and some other Democrats have said they plan to pressure Republicans to change their position again and support the bill. Mr Schumer said he would allow Republicans to come up with their own proposal for funding the measure.
At issue is legislation that would affect an estimated 3.5 million veterans and rival the Agent Orange Act that increased access to care for Vietnam War veterans exposed to the toxic substance used as herbicide and endangering generations of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians.
The bill would make it easier for U.S. service members stationed in a combat zone for the past 32 years to qualify for VA medical care and allocate $280 billion over the next decade to treat ailments related to these exhibits.
It also directs the department to recognize dozens of cancers and diseases that may be linked to toxic exposure and include those exposures in patient questionnaires to reach patients who may be unaware that their condition may be linked to outbreaks. combustion. Benefits would be staggered, meaning more recently discharged veterans would have to wait more than a decade to receive care.
As of July, more than a third of all veterans deployed to Southwest Asia since September 11, 2001 had submitted a disability compensation claim for respiratory ailments, making them the most common ailments, depending on the agency. Of those who applied, only 64% were granted.
Advocacy groups that have been following the legislation said they have been encouraged by reports that the measure may soon be back on track.
Sarah Verardo, CEO of The Independence Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to helping injured veterans, said the group had “watched the movement of Congress over the weekend” and was “very optimistic about change in the tone of leadership”.