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Wall Street Journal: Senate Broadens Benefits for Veterans Exposed to Noxious Chemicals

Legislation earns bipartisan support to expand the number of health conditions Veterans Affairs will consider related to military service

Senate Broadens Benefits for Veterans Exposed to Noxious Chemicals: Legislation earns bipartisan support to expand the number of health conditions Veterans Affairs will consider related to military service

Ben Kesling | Wall Street Journal

The Senate passed legislation to expand healthcare and benefits for millions of veterans, especially those exposed to noxious chemicals.

The legislation approved in the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 84 to 14 expands by two dozen the number of health conditions and diseases the Department of Veterans Affairs will consider related to military service, streamlining access to care and financial benefits related to their treatment. Known as the PACT Act, for Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, the legislation is likely to be adopted by the House and could be signed into law before July 4, said officials familiar with the matter.

“It’s 100 years overdue,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “My dad would have told you it should have been done to take care of World War II vets exposed to radiation. And my granddad would have told you it should have been done for World War I vets who were exposed to mustard gas.”

Troops in combat zones commonly burn refuse that can include plastic water bottles, blood-soaked uniforms, human waste and used batteries. The waste is often soaked in fuel to accelerate burning. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some burn pits on large bases became notorious for their size and stench. The burn pits emitted noxious fumes that researchers have shown can lead to health problems, including neurological issues and lung cancer.

While millions of deployed veterans have been exposed to burn pits, and a substantial number of them complain of negative health effects, the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs were slow to recognize the connection between illnesses and proximity to burn pits. Veterans who suffered from lung damage have had little recourse to get benefits or coverage for claimed illness.

In 2014, the VA launched a Burn Pit Registry to allow veterans to document their concerns and to quantify the scale of the problem. In recent years, lobbying on Capitol Hill by comedian Jon Stewart brought more attention to health problems of first responders exposed to toxins on 9/11, and of people deployed in the military. President Biden has said he suspects his son Beau’s brain tumor and death were related to toxic exposure when he was deployed to Iraq.

Along with the millions of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who will be newly eligible to make claims, the legislation also recognizes health problems for veterans of prior wars. One is octogenarian Victor Skaar, who said he was exposed to radiation when he was ordered to help clean up the wreckage of a B-52 bomber that crashed near Palomares, Spain, in 1966. The plane jettisoned its bombs, and some of their conventional explosives detonated on impact. While the nuclear devices weren’t triggered, the explosions scattered radioactive debris. For years, he said, he has watched fellow veterans die and battled the VA in court to get recognition for the Palomares veterans.

The Congressional Budget Office has said the bill could cost hundreds of billions of dollars because of expected healthcare and benefits claims. The VA also has a backlog of nearly 200,000 benefits claims even before the planned influx of burn-pit claims.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said costs aren’t a concern, but the potential bureaucratic logjam at the VA could prove problematic.

“The VA struggles to implement much less dramatic legislation than this,” he said, adding that Denis McDonough, the department’s secretary, has said the department is prepared for the expected deluge

Mr. McDonough said the department is already planning for the new cases.

Advocates and lawmakers have said caring for veterans is an extension of the costs of war.

“There’s plenty of money to send them over. There should be plenty of money when they come back,” said John Wells, chairman of Military-Veterans Advocacy.