WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan bill to expand health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn outbreaks overseas, returning the package in the US Senate after making a minor change.
Senators, who broadly support the historic package, are expected to quickly approve the measure for President Joe Biden’s signature. The House vote was 342-88.
Biden, who linked the death of his son Beau from a brain tumor in 2015 to exposure to fireplaces, has repeatedly called on Congress to address illnesses and deaths linked to the exposure toxic.
“What I found with my son, what I found with my friends, what I found with the Vietnam generation: there’s this idea that you shouldn’t ask for anything,” Biden said in March while at a resource center in Fort Worth, Texas.
“You should ask. You should let us know. You should let us know what bothers you, what the problem is, because we owe it to you,” Biden continued.
Delayed by litigation
The Senate approved legislation last month following an 84-14 vote, but House approval was delayed while members of veterans affairs committees settled a dispute over a provision to bolster staff in the rural areas.
The wording would have allowed the US Department of Veterans Affairs to remove certain health care providers from their contracts if they accepted offers of work for at least four years in “rural or very rural facilities.” The provision also stated that money from redemptions “shall not be considered a taxable benefit or event to the covered healthcare professional.”
Lawmakers on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee cited a so-called blue slip problem because a tax provision cannot come from the Senate.
After substantial back and forth on how to resolve the issue, the House Rules Committee opted to remove the provision this week, before sending out a new, slightly edited message. invoice on the ground.
The House debate on the legislation on Wednesday was largely bipartisan, with the vast majority of lawmakers speaking in favor of the package.
Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican from Iowa, said she’s “seen firsthand the effects that toxic exposure has had” on fellow service members after her 24-year military career.
“Exposure to these substances can lead to serious, life-changing illnesses,” Miller-Meeks said.
“However, under the current VA system, it can be extremely expensive, time-consuming and, in some cases, impossible for an ill or disabled veteran to prove that their condition is related to toxins they were exposed to during their service. military service. ”
The bill the House passed on Wednesday, she said, would help end that by requiring the VA to provide health care and benefits to veterans exposed to toxins “responsibly and fairly.” .
Miller-Meeks, along with Iowa Republican Representatives Ashley Hinson and Randy Feenstra, voted against a broader version of the bill when the House passed it in early March.
Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Marine Corps infantryman deployed to Iraq in 2005, said the legislation was overdue and desperately needed.
“Too many veterans live in fear that their next doctor’s appointment will reveal an illness that, in addition to harming their health, could bankrupt them because the VA refuses to take care of them. “, said Gallego. “I’m one of those people who have that fear.”
The legislation, named for the late Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson of the Ohio National Guard, would expand VA health care eligibility to more than 3.5 million veterans exposed to burn outbreaks since the September 11th.
This would add 23 illnesses to the list of toxic exposure-related conditions presumed to be related to military service, ending the need for veterans with these conditions to try to prove to the VA that their illnesses were linked to military service. their deployments.
The package would direct more resources to VA health care centers, employees and claims processing as well as federal toxic exposure research.
The measure would also expand presumptions for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical used by the US military during the Vietnam War. American Samoa, Cambodia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Laos and Thailand would all be added to the list of locations where veterans are believed to have been exposed to the chemical.