In recent months, congressional lawmakers have rallied around the goal of providing better care and better benefits for troops exposed to toxic chemicals during their military service.

But how much that will cost remains a problematic stumbling block for legislators hoping to advance those new ideas.

“Everybody here wants to do the right thing, but only some want to pay for it,” said Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., during a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee roundtable on the topic on Wednesday. “What message does it send to service members and veterans to dismiss comprehensive reform that we need due to the cost?”

Wednesday’s event was designed to restart legislative work on the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, a sweeping veterans toxic exposure bill introduced last summer that could lead to new benefits or services for as many as one out of every five living American veterans.

The bill includes provisions related to burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan, defoliant Agent Orange spraying in Vietnam, radiation poisoning for veterans who served during the Cold War and numerous other exposure incidents linked to military service.

The measure has gained praise from veterans advocates but objections from fiscal conservatives, who point to the nearly $300 billion price tag over the next decade as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office.

“I remain committed to finding a way to support toxic exposed veterans in a way that is fiscally responsible for future generations,” said committee ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill. “I believe we can do that … Veterans are taxpayers too. We should be mindful of how we spend their money on their behalf.”

During a three-hour-plus roundtable discussion which featured testimony from veterans groups, burn pit victims and comedian Jon Stewart (a vocal advocate on veterans issues), the issue of the cost of the bill resurfaced multiple times as the likely biggest hurdle for implementing new toxic exposure legislation this year.

That led to significant frustration from advocates, who said congressional rules mandating offsets for the new spending under the bill disrespect the sacrifice of veterans during their time in the ranks.

“Cost wasn’t a driver when Congress and the White House sent us to war, so we shouldn’t shy away from paying for what was incurred,” said Jen Burch, a communications associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who served with the Air Force in Afghanistan. “The time to act is now, for the sake of the current veterans and our future veterans.”

Bost said officials may need to consider implementing the legislation in phases, to blunt the financial impact, or cutting parts of the ambitious plan. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., seemed to dismiss any proposal that might water-down the plan.

“Toxic-exposed veterans have held up their part,” he said. “We cannot renege on our responsibility to take care of these veterans because of any preconceived sticker shock.”

Stewart, who has been the centerpiece of numerous rallies in the last year to build legislative momentum on the issue, warned that Congress risks “losing the battle for hearts and minds of our own veteran community” if they continue to delay action on the measure.

But passage still appears months away, if at all. Both the House and Senate have been focused on other priorities of late, and the significant costs of the measure have slowed down debate in both chambers.

Veterans Affairs leaders have worked to implement their own reforms since last fall, when the White House announced a goal of reforming how all toxic exposure presumptive injuries are analyzed and handled.

Advocacy groups praised that work so far but said it needs to move further and faster.

In the past, Veterans Affairs officials have estimated more than 3.5 million troops were exposed to the toxic smoke from burn pits during overseas deployments over the last 20 years.

“We may have differing opinions about how the end product should look regarding toxic exposure presumptives, but the one thing I believe we can all agree on is that the current process is broken,” said Patrick Murray, Legislative Director at Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“It’s not helping veterans to the fullest extent. We need to do something to fix that.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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