A bill expanding health care and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic military burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan passed the U.S. Senate on Thursday in an overwhelmingly 84-14 bipartisan vote.
The bill eases and expands access to health services and disability benefits for veterans who were exposed to toxic smoke from the U.S. military’s use of burn pits on foreign bases until the mid-2010s.
“If we can’t get something done in a bipartisan way to help our veterans country, then gee whiz, something’s the matter in the country, but we did,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a press conference Thursday, applauding his colleagues who helped the bill pass the Senate chamber.
“It used to just burn my rump that veterans in New York and elsewhere who knew they were exposed to these toxic materials had to fight the VA to get help, instead of the VA helping them,” Schumer added.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York didn’t shy away from connecting burn pits to cancers on Thursday.
“These are benefits that these men and women earned,” Gillibrand said. “They earned it through their blood, sweat and tears, through their extraordinary efforts for this country. And little did they know that the burn pits dug up around the bases where they served were emitting horrible toxins, which caused some of the worst cancers, from brain cancer to throat cancer to lung cancer to stomach cancer. And now they need our help.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement after the Senate vote that the House “will now move swiftly to take up this legislation and send it to President Biden’s desk for his signature.”
The bill is a personal issue for President Joe Biden, who believes his late son Beau’s fatal brain cancer could have been caused by such a pit from when he served in Iraq.
Officials note that the Veterans Administration has rejected approximately 80 percent of disability claims related to burn pits.
“The cost of war is not fully paid when the war is over. We are now on the verge of honoring that commitment to American veterans and their families,” Republican Senator Jerry Moran said ahead of the vote on Thursday.
The military routinely used open burn pits set ablaze with jet fuel to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste, and other materials during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill would expand military veterans’ eligibility for medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs by extending coverage for ten years after discharge instead of the current five years.
The legislation would also presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing the veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.
Currently, more than 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to a lack of evidence, scientific data, and information from the Defense Department.