The Senate on Wednesday quickly and quietly approved a bipartisan bill intended to extend Department of Veterans Affairs health care to more veterans suffering from conditions related to toxic exposure.
The bill was a pared-down version of legislation that had been introduced in both the House and Senate, legislation that would have dramatically expanded benefits for toxic exposure victims but was deemed too pricey by some critics due to projected costs of more than $200 billion. The scaled-down bill was approved by unanimous consent, meaning no one objected when Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked on the Senate floor for the bill to pass.
But even though no one objected Wednesday, the bill has garnered criticism from some Democratic lawmakers and advocates who say it does not go far enough to help veterans now suffering from fatal diseases after breathing in toxins during their time in the military.
The bill, which was negotiated by Tester and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and introduced just two weeks ago, would create a one-year enrollment period for VA medical care for post-9/11 combat veterans who served after 1998 and never enrolled. It would also extend the enrollment period for all formerly deployed post-9/11 combat vets from five years to 10.
The bill would also mandate that the VA screen patients for potential exposure to toxic substances during their military services.
"Unanimous passage of our Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act sends a clear message to toxic-exposed veterans across the country that we are committed to moving the needle on addressing toxic exposures in a comprehensive and bipartisan way," Tester said in a press release after the bill passed. "Our bill is a necessary step in connecting an entire generation of veterans with the VA care they need and cannot wait for any longer."
Supporters of the bill say it could extend health coverage to at least 1 million of the 3.5 million veterans estimated to have been exposed to burn pits and other types of pollution while deployed. The measure's estimated cost is $1 billion.
The bill has been endorsed by several large veterans organizations, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Wounded Warrior Project, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
But it has also been panned by other advocates who say it falls short because it does not include disability compensation or a list of illnesses presumed to be related to exposure eligible for expedited benefits.
"You are putting a band aid on a open sucking chest wound with your bull---- legislation," activist John Feal tweeted to Tester and Moran earlier this month. "These men and woman need better, deserve better, earned better and you failed them! I will dedicate my life to ensure you fail again!"
Tester last year introduced a more comprehensive bill called the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops, or COST, of War Act. That bill was projected to cost about $225 billion.
House Democrats have been pushing a much broader toxic exposure bill called the Honoring Our PACT Act that would designate 23 diseases as presumed to be linked to burn pits and other airborne hazards. In addition to post-9/11 veterans, the House bill also would extend coverage to Vietnam veterans suffering hypertension and veterans exposed to radiation during nuclear waste cleanup.
Republicans have rejected the House bill as too costly. Its price tag is estimated at $282 billion.
The House has been expected to vote on the Honoring Our PACT Act after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., identified it as one of her short-term priorities in a Jan. 21 letter to colleagues, but no vote has been scheduled yet.
Tester and Moran have said their bill is meant to be the first step in a three-pronged approach to help toxic-exposed veterans. The senators envision the next steps to be establishing a new process for the VA to determine future presumptive conditions and providing overdue benefits to ill veterans.
After their bill passed, Tester and Moran called on their House colleagues to follow their lead.
"This kind of swift action is a testament to what can be accomplished when we all row in the same direction, and I encourage my House colleagues to join us in getting this bill across the finish line to quickly deliver relief where it's most needed," Tester said in his statement.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.