WASHINGTON (AP) — A bill to improve health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits received final approval in the Senate on Tuesday, ending a brief standoff over the measure that had infuriated supporters and inspired some to to camp outside the Capitol.
The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 86 to 11. It now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law. Biden described the legislation as the largest expansion of benefits for service-related health problems in 30 years and the largest single bill ever to address exposure to fire pits.
“I look forward to signing this legislation into law so that veterans and their families and caregivers affected by toxic burdens can finally receive the benefits and comprehensive health care they deserve and deserve,” Biden said.
The Senate had overwhelmingly approved the legislation back in June, but it needed revision to find a technical solution. That process stalled when Republicans made a late-night attempt to change another aspect of the bill last week, preventing it from moving forward.
The abrupt delay outraged veterans’ groups and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart. It also put GOP senators in the awkward position of delaying the top legislative priority of service organizations in this session of Congress.
A group of veterans and their families have been camping out at the Capitol since that vote. They’d weathered thunderstorms and Washington’s notorious summertime humidity, but they were in the stands when the senators cast their ballots.
“You can go home knowing what you have done and accomplished for the United States of America,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., told them.
The law expands access to health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for millions who have served near burn pits. It also directs the VA to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers are related to exposure in fire pits, allowing veterans to receive disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness resulted from their service.
Approximately 70% of disability requests related to exposure to burn pits are denied by the VA due to a lack of evidence, scientific data and Department of Defense information.
The military used burn pits to dump things like chemicals, cans, tires, plastic, and medical and human waste.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War veterans and survivors will also benefit from the legislation. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a putative medical condition linked to exposure to Agent Orange.
The Congressional Budget Office projected that about 600,000 of Vietnam’s 1.6 million living veterinarians would be eligible for higher compensation, although only about half would have serious diagnoses to warrant higher compensation.
Veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll are also likely to have been exposed to Agent Orange. That’s another 50,000 veterans and survivors of deceased veterans who would receive compensation for illnesses believed to have been caused by their exposure to the herbicide, the CBO predicted.
The bill also authorizes 31 major VA medical health clinics and research facilities in 19 states.
The law is expected to increase government deficits by about $277 billion over 10 years.
The law was a year-long effort started by veterans and their families who blamed the burn pits used in Iraq and Afghanistan for respiratory problems and other illnesses the veterans suffered upon their return. It was named after Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson of Ohio, who died in 2020 from cancer he attributed to prolonged exposure to cremation pits. His widow, Danielle Robinson, was a guest of First Lady Jill Biden at the President’s State of the Union address earlier this year.
Stewart, the former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” also brought increased exposure to the burn pit diseases faced by veterans. He was also in the stands watching Tuesday’s vote. He cried and held his head in his hand as the final vote began.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little,” he said after the vote. “And I hope we learn a lesson.”
The House of Representatives was the first to respond to the fire pit legislation. An earlier version, which the House of Representatives approved in March, was expected to increase spending by more than $320 billion over 10 years, but senators cut some of the costs early by phasing in certain performance improvements. They also added funding for staffing to help the VA keep pace with expected increases in healthcare demand and an increase in disability claims.
Some GOP senators are still concerned that the bill will increase VA delays given the increased demand for veterans seeking care or disability compensation.
“What we have learned is that the VA cannot deliver what was promised because it does not have the capacity to handle the increase,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., led efforts to get the bill passed in the Senate. After the passage, Tester told reporters he received a call from Biden thanking him for taking “a huge weight” off his shoulder.
For Biden, the issue is very personal. He has suggested that fire pits in Iraq were responsible for the death of his son Beau.
“We don’t know for sure whether a burn pit was the cause of his brain tumor or the illnesses of so many of our troops,” Biden said in his State of the Union address. “But I’m anxious to find out everything we can.”
Moran said he was disappointed when the law didn’t pass last week but recalled the strength of the protesters who had sat outside in the scorching heat for days.
“Thanks to the United States Senate for showing that when there’s good and cause, this place still works,” Moran said.
Associated Press contributor Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.