WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday approved a bill to create a new eligibility program to treat veterans who may have been exposed to toxic substances while burning garbage pits on U.S. military bases, sending President Biden legislation that would extend eligibility for medical care to approximately 3.5 million people.
The bill was approved in a lopsided bipartisan vote, 86 to 11, just days after Republicans withdrew support in a dispute over how to pay benefits, jeopardizing the legislation and causing days of angry protests from veterans who gathered outside the Capitol to demand action.
The move would be the biggest expansion of veterans benefits since the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which increased access to care for Vietnam War veterans who had been exposed to the toxic herbicide that put danger to generations of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians.
The new legislation would effectively presume that any U.S. service member stationed in a combat zone for the past 32 years could have been exposed to toxic substances, allocating a planned $280 billion over the next decade to treat conditions related to these exposures and streamline access for veterans. to such care.
The House approved the bill last month and Mr. Biden, who has championed the measure, was expected to sign it quickly. He speculated that toxic substances from burning fireplaces contributed to the brain cancer that killed his son Beau Biden, who served in Iraq, in 2015.
The legislation had garnered broad support on Capitol Hill, but just when it was due to clear the Senate last week, House Republicans abruptly withdrew their support, insisting that Democrats allow them to limit the funding available to deal with veterans.
The bill would provide guaranteed funding for the treatment of veterans exposed to toxins by creating a dedicated fund that would not be subject to Congress’s annual spending process. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, warned that the measure was worded to allow for immense new spending unrelated to veterans’ care.
Mr Toomey tried and failed to cap the amount of money that could be put into the fund each year, a move which Denis McDonough, the Veterans Affairs Secretary, said could lead to ‘care rationing’ for veterinarians.
Mr. Toomey also proposed moving the veterans’ treatment fund to so-called discretionary spending after a decade, meaning the Department of Veterans Affairs would have to apply for funding every year. That would subject funding to congressional approval and annual partisan spending battles on Capitol Hill, rather than securing it.
Democrats opposed both efforts, saying the legislation did not need to be changed.
“This is a bill that will work for this country, that will work for the taxpayers of this country, and that will work, most importantly, for veterans and their families,” said Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana and chairman of Veterans Affairs Committee.
Susan Zeier, the mother-in-law of Heath Robinson, a member of the Ohio National Guard whose bill is named, had been protesting outside the Capitol for days to urge the Senate to pass the measure before leaving for her vacation of summer. .
Mr. Robinson served in Iraq and died in 2020 after battling lung cancer believed to be linked to exposure to the burn pit, and Bill is called Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson honoring our promise to meet the Global Toxic Substances Act 2022.
“For me and my daughter, it’s satisfaction that we’ve kept our promise to Heath,” Ms Zeier said. “We hope families don’t suffer like we did.”