Senate approves bill to aid vets exposed to toxic burn pits

  • Activist and entertainer Jon Stewart hugs fellow advocate Susan Zeier of Sandusky, Ohio, Tuesday at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — A bill enhancing health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits won final approval in the Senate on Tuesday, ending a brief stalemate over the measure that had infuriated advocates and inspired some to camp outside the Capitol.

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 86-11. It now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law. Biden described the legislation as the biggest expansion of benefits for service-connected health issues in 30 years and the largest single bill ever to address exposure to burn pits.

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“I look forward to signing this bill, so that veterans and their families and caregivers impacted by toxic exposures finally get the benefits and comprehensive health care they earned and deserve,” Biden said.

The Senate had overwhelming approved the legislation back in June, but a do-over was required to make a technical fix. That process derailed when Republicans made a late attempt to change another aspect of the bill last week and blocked it from advancing.

The abrupt delay outraged veterans groups and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart. It also placed GOP senators in the uncomfortable position of delaying the top legislative priority of service organizations this session of Congress.

A group of veterans and their families have been camping out at the Capitol since that vote. They had endured thunderstorms and Washington’s notorious summer humidity, but they were in the galleries as senators cast their votes.

“You can go home knowing the good and great thing you have done and accomplished for the United States of America,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told them.

The legislation expands access to health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for millions who served near burn pits. It also directs the VA to presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.

Roughly 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data and information from the Defense Department.

The military used burn pits to dispose of such things as chemicals, cans, tires, plastics and medical and human waste.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War era veterans and survivors also stand to benefit from the legislation. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a presumptive disease associated with Agent Orange exposure.

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