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Senate approves bill to help vets exposed to toxic burns

WASHINGTON – A bill that would increase health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burns won final approval in the Senate on Tuesday, ending a brief impasse over the measure that angered advocates and inspired some to camp outside the Capitol.

The Senate approved the bill by an 86-11 vote. It now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law. He said the bill “fulfills our sacred obligation” to care for veterans and their families.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the legislation back in June, but a revision was needed to make a technical correction. That process was derailed when Republicans made a late attempt to change another aspect of the bill last week and blocked it from moving forward.

The abrupt delay outraged veterans’ groups and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart. It also put GOP senators in the awkward position of delaying a top legislative priority for service organizations this session of Congress.

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A group of veterans and their families camped out at the Capitol after that vote. They had braved thunderstorms and Washington’s notorious August humidity, but were in the galleries as senators voted.

“You can go home knowing the good and great thing you have done and accomplished for the United States of America,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told them.

The legislation expands access to health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for millions who served near burn pits. It directs the VA to accept that certain respiratory diseases and cancers are linked to burn exposure, allowing veterans to receive disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove that the disease was the result of their service.

Approximately 70% of burn exposure disability claims are denied by the VA due to a lack of evidence, scientific data, and information from the Department of Defense.

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The military uses incineration pits to dispose of such things as chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, and medical and human waste.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War veterans and survivors will also benefit from the legislation. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a presumptive disease associated with exposure to Agent Orange.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts that about 600,000 of Vietnam’s 1.6 million living vets will be eligible for increased compensation, although only about half will have diagnoses severe enough to warrant more compensation.

Additionally, veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will be presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. That’s 50,000 more veterans and survivors of deceased veterans who will receive compensation for illnesses believed to have been caused by their exposure to the herbicide, CBO projected.

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The bill is projected to increase the federal deficit by about $277 billion over 10 years.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.

Senate approves bill to help vets exposed to toxic burns

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