By Kevin Friking – The Associated Press
Washington (AFP) – A bill that would boost health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans who suffered toxic burns hit a snag in the Senate last week, angering advocates such as comedian Jon Stewart who said aid from the government is long overdue.
Lawmakers have been increasingly hearing from voters with respiratory illnesses and cancers they attribute to serving near burns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military used pits to dispose of things like chemicals, cans, tires, plastic, and medical and human waste.
Veterans' groups say military veterans have waited long enough for enhanced health benefits, and lawmakers largely agree. The Senate is eventually expected to send the measure to President Joe Biden’s desk. It’s just a matter of when.
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How will the bill help veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan?
First, veterans who served near burn pits will receive 10 years of health care coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs when separated from the military instead of five.
Second, the legislation directs the VA to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were associated with burn pit exposure. This removes the burden of proof on the veteran, allowing him to receive disability payments to compensate for his injury without having to prove that the illness was a result of their service.
Nearly 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure have been denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs due to a lack of evidence, scientific data, and information from the Department of Defense.
Is there help for other vegetarians? yes. For example, hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War-era veterans and survivors will also benefit. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a putative disease linked to exposure to Agent Orange. The Congressional Budget Office projected that about 600,000 of the 1.6 million veterinarians living in Vietnam would be eligible for increased compensation, although only about half of them would have diagnoses severe enough to warrant having one.
Also, veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. The CBO projected that 50,000 veterans and survivors of deceased veterans would be compensated for illnesses presumed to have resulted from their exposure to the herbicide.
How much will the bill cost?
The bill is expected to increase the federal deficit by about $277 billion over 10 years, the Central Bank of Oman said. Lawmakers haven’t included the formula for spending cuts or tax increases to help pay off spending.
Where do things stand in Congress? Both the House and Senate approved the bill by an overwhelming majority. The Senate did so in June, but the bill included a revenue clause that would have to arise in the House, and would require a reappointment for a technical overhaul.
The House of Representatives approved the fixed bill by 342 votes to 88. So, the measure is now back in the Senate, where the previous iteration passed by 84 votes to 14. Biden says he will sign it.
So why hasn’t the Senate approved this yet?
When the CBO scored the bill, it predicted that nearly $400 billion to be spent on health services would move from discretionary spending to mandatory spending, which is often shielded from the painful battles that occur each year over where the money in appropriations bills is spent.
The Committee on Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan financial watchdog, said reclassifying nearly $400 billion from discretionary to mandatory would "reduce pressure to keep those costs under control and make it easier for financiers to spend more elsewhere in the budget without compensation." ."
Those dynamics also applied to the bill when the Senate approved it in June. However, senators voted in favor of the measure by an overwhelming majority.
But, last week, more than two dozen Republicans voted for the bill in June against introducing it this time around. They sided with Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is seeking a vote on an amendment that he says would not reduce spending on veterans but would prevent increased spending on other non-defense programs in the future.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer offered to allow the Senate to vote on the Tommy Amendment with the 60 votes needed to pass it, the same number needed to advance the bill itself.
It’s unclear how the delay will be resolved, though Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday predicted that the bill would pass this week.
Veterans Defense groups, a major voting bloc in the upcoming midterm elections, are outraged and are increasing political pressure on lawmakers to act. At a news conference on Capitol Hill the day after last week’s procedural vote, speakers used terms like "bad guys" and "reprehensible" to describe Republican senators who voted against advancing the measure last week but voted for nearly the same bill in June.
"Veterans are angry and confused at the sudden change of those who thought they had their backs," said Cory Titus of the American Military Officers Association.
"You screwed up veterans yesterday, and now we’re going to hold them accountable," added Tom Porter of the US Veterans Group for Iraq and Afghanistan.
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