House passes bill to expand health care for veterans exposed to toxins; 174 Republicans oppose the measure

The U.S. military used fire pits throughout Iraq and Afghanistan to incinerate and burn waste, medical and hazardous materials, and jet fuel, exposing veterans to toxins that left lasting medical effects. Veterans who have been exposed to these toxins often face difficult processes applying for VA disability benefits to obtain needed health care.

Republicans who voted in opposition argued that the measure, which costs $300 billion over 10 years, would add too much to the country’s deficit and exacerbate backlogs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) — a doctor, 24-year-old military veteran, and member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee — opposed the House prosecution bill, saying the the Senate’s version, which is narrower in scope, is a more responsible measure.

“We are not doing our veterans any good by being financially irresponsible on their behalf. And I say that as a veteran myself,” Miller-Meeks said.

Under the House bill, 23 health conditions, including respiratory problems and cancers, would be considered to have been caused or exacerbated by military service, meaning veterans with these conditions would not would have more to prove that they were caused by their exposure to these toxins.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) at a press conference Thursday said she was “amazed and surprised” by Republicans’ criticism of the bill’s price tag.

“That’s the cost of war,” Pelosi said. “For Republicans to stand up and say veterans really don’t want this aid because it’s going to cost money, and they’re more concerned about the budget [than] they take care of their health. Oh really? You just gave tax cuts in 2017 to the wealthiest people in America.

“Tax cuts for the rich, cancer for our veterans,” she added. “That’s how we see this discussion.”

Among the 174 Republicans opposed to the bill were the three main party leaders — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (California) and Reps. Steve Scalise (La.) and Elise Stefanik (NY).

Tackling hotspots and their effects has also been a priority for President Biden, who raised the issue during his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Biden said Congress needed to do more to help veterans with long-term health issues after being exposed to these dangers while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying it was an issue he cared about to heart. For years, Biden has said his son Beau’s death could have been caused by exposure to toxins while serving in Iraq and Kosovo. Beau Biden was a major in the Army National Guard.

“I have always believed that we have a sacred obligation to equip those we send to war and to care for them and their families when they return home,” Biden said during his speech. .

The House bill was introduced by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-California) and pushed by Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California), a medical doctor. In the House on Thursday, Ruiz argued that the House owes it to veterans and those who have lost loved ones to these toxins to pass the bill.

“This is a self-inflicted DoD wound that our military inflicted on our military, and now they are dying as delayed casualties of war because of these exposures,” Ruiz said. “We have to save lives today.”

Lawyers and lawmakers, including Pelosi, rallied in favor of the bill on Wednesday. The legislation has received support from veterans and advocates groups, including comedian Jon Stewart, who has long advocated for veterans and first responders and victims of 9/11.

“This country’s learning curve of how we treat our veterans when they come home from war is so painfully slow, the pace is unacceptable,” Stewart said at Wednesday’s rally, where he also dismissed criticism that the bill was too expensive.

“If we can’t bear the consequences of war, maybe we should consider not starting so many,” he said.

Takano said at the event on Wednesday that “if we are to bear the cost of starting and sustaining the war, we must recognize the financial costs of the support for veterans that it creates when it returns home. We cannot waive our responsibility due to sticker shock. We have a moral obligation to American veterans.

The Senate bill, which passed in February with bipartisan support, only extends the length of time that post-9/11 veterans receive VA care by expanding a health care eligibility window from five to 10 years after their release.

The Senate and House bills must be reconciled and a final version passed by Congress before heading to the President.

Jada Yuan in New York contributed reporting.


Washington

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