Landmark legislation that would broadly expand Department of Veterans Affairs health care and disability benefits for U.S. troops sickened by burn pits and other environmental exposures would cost more than $282 billion over 10 years, a new congressional budget estimate has found.
The legislative proposal, known as the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act, would potentially give millions more veterans health care and compensation from the VA, including post-9/11 service members and those from earlier eras who have illnesses thought to be related to military service.
But it comes at a price, according to the Congressional Budget Office: $84.9 billion in the first four years if approved this year and $281.5 billion through 2031.
The bill would designate 23 diseases as presumed to be linked to burn pits used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as dust and other pollutants found in battlefield environments and overseas.
It also would expand eligibility to veterans who have faced challenges applying for benefits, including those who served in Vietnam and have hypertension, as well as Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other defoliants outside the war zone.
And it would address benefits for veterans exposed to radiation during nuclear waste cleanups in Palomares, Spain, and Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands while expanding coverage for Persian Gulf War veterans.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., sponsored the PACT Act, which has the support of 68 Democrats and two Republicans.
A similar measure, the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops, or COST, of War Act, has been introduced in the Senate by Montana Democrat Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated Tester's bill would cost $223 billion over 10 years.
Veterans groups -- including the Veterans of Foreign Wars; Disabled American Veterans; American Legion; Paralyzed Veterans of America; Wounded Warrior Project; Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; and more -- say the legislation is long overdue.
"Our nation has a solemn duty to care for those suffering long-term, negative health effects from toxic exposures during their military service," DAV National Commander Stephen Whitehead said in a press release shortly after the Honoring Our Pact Act introduction.
The issue has drawn widespread attention, including from comedian Jon Stewart and John Feal, an advocate for 9/11 first responders, who have made several trips to Capitol Hill to press Congress to pass the legislation.
"If we can't correct even the most basic of injustices to those who have served us then -- I believe the phrase would be 'yikes,'" Stewart said during a press conference Nov. 4 with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who sponsored the PACT bill in the Senate.
"These people deserve better. These men and women who protected us from harm's way, they're literally dying every day because they get denied and then they commit suicide. But yeah, we'll go up to them and say, 'Hey, thank you for your service,'" Feal said during the same press conference.
But some members of Congress have concerns about the price tag and how the VA would handle the addition of potentially 3.5 million veterans to its hospitals and disability rolls.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, voted for the COST of War bill but said it "needs a lot of work."
At the time, the committee did not know the estimated cost of the bill or how it would affect the VA.
"It would have been my preference for this committee to resolve these issues before voting on whether or not it is ready for debate on the Senate floor," Moran said prior to considering the bill in committee May 26.
Earlier this year, the VA designated three conditions -- asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis -- as illnesses caused by burn pit and air pollution exposure and therefore eligible for disability pay and health care.
The department also is moving ahead to determine whether other illnesses should be deemed as connected to burn pits and other pollution, with an intent to announce next year whether some cancers and a rare lung disease will qualify.
In announcing the review, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said these veterans deserve consideration.
"This is only the beginning of our efforts, and we will keep moving ahead with urgency," McDonough said during a press conference last month.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime