The bill set for a vote Thursday has the backing of the nation’s major veterans groups and underscores the continued cost of war years after the fighting has stopped. If passed into law, it would increase spending by more than $300 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
“If we're not willing to pay the price of war, we shouldn't go," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The bill would open up Department of Veterans Affairs health care to millions of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans exposed to toxic substances during their service even if they don't have a service-connected disability.
The bill also would provide new or increased disability benefits to thousands of veterans who have become ill with cancer or respiratory conditions such as bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. The VA would presume that veterans developed their illness as a result of exposure to toxic substances during their service.
The bill's supporters say it is a clear recognition from Congress that veterans were exposed to toxic substances, they are suffering as a result, and the process of proving to the VA that their illness was caused by their exposure is too burdensome.
Opponents of the legislation say it would grant health and disability benefits to many veterans whose conditions may not have anything to do with their military service. They expressed worry that the influx of cases would tax an already stressed VA system, leading to longer wait times for health care and processing disability claims.
The political dynamics surrounding the vote was evident on the House floor Wednesday as scores of Democrats, some from competitive swing districts, spoke in favor of the bill.
“This bill addresses the true cost of war and opposing it would be a vote against our servicemembers and veterans," said Rep. Mark Takano of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Republicans generally left it to Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa to do all the talking Wednesday in opposition to the bill. Miller-Meeks is a U.S. Army veteran and said she hears from fellow veterans frequently in Iowa who wait months, or even years, for the benefits they earned, and that problem will only grow if the bill becomes law. She also noted that the projected cost of the bill is more than the budgets of nine Cabinet-level departments combined.
“We are not doing right by our veterans by being fiscally irresponsible in their name," Miller-Meeks said.
The military routinely used burn pits to dispose of waste during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2020 study from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found that existing health studies provided insufficient evidence to determine whether exposure to burn pit emissions are linked to adverse respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer. The authors of the study said the uncertainty doesn't mean there is no association — only that there was insufficient data to draw definitive conclusions.
President Joe Biden is among those who has voiced suspicion that his son's death from brain cancer was linked to burn pits that were in use while Maj. Beau Biden served in Iraq.
"And they come home, many of the world’s fittest and best trained warriors, never the same — headaches, numbness, dizziness, a cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin," he said during Tuesday's State of the Union address.
Biden said it's unknown whether a burn pit caused his son's brain cancer, or the diseases of so many others who served, “but I’m committed to finding out everything we can."
The White House has endorsed the House bill, which goes beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. It also adds hypertension to the list of illnesses that Vietnam veterans are presumed to have developed because of exposure to Agent Orange. The CBO estimates that about 600,000 of the 1.6 million veterans who served in Vietnam and who already receive disability compensation also have hypertension, or high blood pressure. They would be eligible for increased compensation, which would depend upon the severity of the illness.
Biden called on the VA last year to examine the impact of burn pits and other airborne hazards. He has backed expanding the number of conditions that the VA would presume were caused by toxic exposure from burn pits.
In November, the White House announced that soldiers exposed to burn pits who developed any of three specific ailments — asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis — within 10 years can receive disability benefits. The House bill greatly builds on that effort with 21 additional presumptive conditions, and possibly more to come in ensuing years.
The bill also provides for retroactive benefits to veterans whose disability claims have been denied, and to survivors of deceased veterans.
The sums are substantial. For example, Vietnam veterans eligible for retroactive payments due to hypertension from exposure to Agent Orange would receive retroactive payments averaging about $13,500, while survivors would receive about $100,000, the CBO said in a December report.
Meanwhile, some 268,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan whose claims have been denied would receive retroactive payments averaging about $50,000. And some 5,500 survivors would receive about $160,000, on average, CBO said.
It is unclear how the House bill will fare in an evenly divided Senate where legislation generally needs 60 votes to advance.
The Senate has unanimously passed a much narrower bill extending how long combat veterans are guaranteed VA care. But House Democrats said the Senate legislation is just a fraction of what is needed.