Promising “swift action” to help suffering veterans, leaders of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee unveiled new legislation Tuesday that would extend health care coverage for separating troops for at least 10 years and mandate more screening of veterans for toxic exposure injuries.
However, the proposal was met by derision from some advocates, who called it less comprehensive than proposed House legislation and not ambitious enough considering the years of effort put into helping victims of military burn pits overseas.
The new measure — introduced by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas — is expected to be advanced by that panel in a mark-up Wednesday and could get a vote on the Senate floor in coming weeks.
“Without action, post-9/11 veterans will suffer as Vietnam veterans have, and every year more toxic exposure veterans will pay the ultimate price while waiting for the treatment that they need,” Tester said in a press conference unveiling the measure. “That’s why this bill is so critical.”
The proposal — expected to cost about $1 billion in coming years — would make all troops eligible for Veterans Affairs health care for 10 years after separation (currently it’s five years) and creates a new one-year open enrollment period for younger veterans whose eligibility has already expired.
The idea is to provide more monitoring of veterans after their military service for signs of respiratory illnesses, rare cancers and other diseases linked to toxic smoke from military burn pits, used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan to get rid of surplus and waste during combat operations.
“There are approximately 3.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans who have experienced some level of exposure to burn pits during their service,” Moran said.
“Many of these veterans could be living with undiagnosed illness linked to military toxic exposures … We must respond to the immediate needs of those veterans by providing health care.”
The legislation would also mandate toxic exposure questionnaires for patients during VA medical visits and increase training for VA staffers on recognizing and treating toxic exposure illnesses.
Tester emphasized that the measure is just part of a multi-step approach to the issue of military toxic exposure issues, noting other pending legislative efforts and VA’s own work to begin awarding presumptive benefits to some burn pit victims.
He said the measure has the support of all the Republicans and Democrats on his committee, as well as a number of prominent veterans groups.
However, hours before the press conference, John Feal — president of the FealGood Foundation, and a vocal advocate on the issue of burn pit benefits for years — took to social media to blast the Senate proposal as insufficient.
“You are putting a band aid on an open sucking chest wound with your bullshit legislation,” he wrote. “These men and women need better, deserve better, earned better and you failed them!”
Feal (along with comedian Jon Stewart and a large coalition of outside advocates) have been lobbying for months for Congress to advance the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act.
That measure would provide new disability benefits to as many as one out of every five living American veterans, including individuals who served in Vietnam and smaller operations around the globe.
The PACT Act also carries with it a price tag of almost $300 billion, a figure that has caused significant concerns among Republicans in Congress.
Last month, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said he is confident the PACT Act is the right path forward for both burn pit victims and other suffering veterans, and vowed to push ahead despite the concerns that the legislation is too encompassing.
“[This bill] is definitive, it is bold, and it is the action our veterans deserve,” he said in a statement. “With each passing day, more veterans will get sick. It’s time for us to hold up our end of the deal and urgently pass this bill.”
Tester said he is in communication with House leaders on the potential paths ahead.
“They will take a look at what we’re doing here as we take a look at what they’re doing there,” he said. “And hopefully, they will understand that in order to get this done ... we’re going to take this step by step.”
Senate committee officials estimated that as many as one-third of all post-9/11 veterans suffering from burn pit injuries may be ineligible for VA health care under current rules. Tester and Moran said fixing that problem needs to be the top priority for lawmakers.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon for a procedural vote on the new proposal.
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.