House leaders will bring sweeping military toxic exposure legislation to the chamber floor next week in a bid to force Congress to create a comprehensive plan to help ailing veterans instead of opting for smaller, piecemeal efforts.
With Democrats authoring the bill and controlling the chamber, it is expected to pass. However, the bigger question is what comes next, and whether moving ahead with this measure will complicate or stall broader efforts to improve benefits for military toxic exposure injuries.
On Tuesday, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said lawmakers will debate the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act next week. A specific date has yet to be announced.
The legislation has gained significant support from veterans advocates in recent months as a way to help millions of veterans suffering from injuries caused by burn pit smoke and other military toxins.
“When we send our service members into harm’s way, we do so with the promise that we will care for them when they come home and pay for that care,” Takano told reporters in a press conference with veterans advocates Tuesday morning.
“Toxic exposed veterans held up their end of the deal. It’s past time that Congress and [the Department of Veterans Affairs] do the same.”
As many as one out of every five living American veterans could receive some sort of new disability payout or medical care under the proposal. It would mandate that 23 cancers and respiratory illnesses believed linked to the toxic smoke from military burn pits be covered for medical care and benefits payouts for troops who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
It also adds hypertension to the list of illnesses presumed caused by Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam and presumptive status for radiation poisoning for thousands more veterans who served in areas where nuclear testing and weaponry was used.
But the measure has a price tag of nearly $85 billion in the next five years and more than $280 billion over the next decade, which has drawn opposition from conservatives in Congress.
Last week, Senate lawmakers passed their own plan — the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act — which is much more limited in cost (about $1 billion) and scope.
It would extend health care coverage to veterans for 10 years after they leave military service, instead of the current five years. And it would mandate new employee training and patient screenings related to toxic exposure issues, as well as expand research on the topic.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., has billed the measure as only the first step in addressing the larger problem of rare cancers and respiratory illnesses among veterans, but one that is both important and realistic.
“Unanimous passage of our [bill] sends a clear message to toxic-exposed veterans across the country that we are committed to moving the needle on addressing toxic exposures in a comprehensive and bipartisan way,” he said in a statement following the Senate vote.
“Our bill is a necessary step in connecting an entire generation of veterans with the VA care they need and cannot wait for any longer.”
But Takano on Tuesday said the measure is simply too narrow to truly address the problem.
“These veterans don’t want to sit back and watch the legislative process leave them behind,” he said. “What they need is definitive, bold action. That starts with passing this [House] bill.”
House Veterans’ Affairs staff on Tuesday released statements of support from 11 veterans organizations on the PACT Act, and organized the press event with comedian and veterans advocate Jon Stewart to build momentum for the bill.
“What is so frustrating here is that this [bill] addresses the problem,” Stewart said. “It can be done. We have everything we need for this but the will.”
Jen Burch, an Air Force veteran who suffered respiratory damage from burn pit exposure during her time in Afghanistan, said the 10-year health care extension is an important gesture but simply not enough of a fix for veterans like herself who are still suffering.
“It took seven years and thousands and thousands of dollars to finally get a toxic exposure disability rating with a diagnosis of restrictive lung disease,” said Burch, who now works as a communications specialist with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“I had to be my own advocate, lawyer and social worker. Essentially, the burden of proof was laid upon me and lays upon all the other veterans out there.”
Takano expects House leaders will approve a budget waiver or some other type of financial exception for the legislation to move ahead without any significant implementation barriers.
He is also hopeful that the measure will get a strong, bipartisan vote in the House next week, creating momentum for the Senate to take up the plan and abandon Tester’s step-by-step approach, designed to calm some objections from Republicans in the evenly-split Senate.
If that doesn’t work, the next step remains unclear. Takano said he hasn’t begun discussions with Tester yet on a compromise between the two measures.
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.