At Least 1 Million Vets Could Get VA Health Care Under Scaled-Back Exposures Bill

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Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran
Montana Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, (Right) and Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, introduced legislation that would extend Veterans Affairs health services to all combat-deployed post-9/11 veterans. (Military.com photo by Patricia Kime)

With cost imperiling a $282 billion bill that would help those exposed to burn pits, as well as Vietnam veterans with hypertension, two senators are proposing a much less expensive compromise that could still help more than 1 million veterans get Department of Veterans Affairs health care.

Committee Chairman Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the committee's ranking Republican, introduced a bill Tuesday that would create a one-year enrollment period for VA medical care for post-9/11 combat veterans who served after 1998 and never enrolled. It would also extend the enrollment period for all formerly deployed post-9/11 combat vets from five years to 10.

The bill, called the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act, would allow veterans discharged after Sept. 11, 2001, to qualify. The senators peg the cost at less than $1 billion.

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But advocates are outraged over what they see as a breakdown of major legislative initiatives, estimated to cost hundreds of billions of dollars, that would help former service members or their survivors -- the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act, and the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops, or COST of War Act -- since Tester and Moran's bill doesn't include disability compensation or a list of illnesses presumed to be related to exposure eligible for expedited benefits.

"How does the expansion of health care help the survivors filing for death benefits?" tweeted Rosie Torres, co-founder of the nonprofit Burn Pits 360 group. "Stop the delay and deny! Grant presumption!"

"Putting a band aid on a open sucking chest wound with your bulls--- legislation," tweeted activist John Feal. "These men and [women] need better, deserve better, earned better and you failed them! I will dedicate my life to ensure you fail again!"

The senators said the legislation would expand VA health care to at least 1 million of the 3.5 million veterans who served and were exposed to burn pits and other types of pollution while deployed but don't have access to VA care.

"As more and more veterans report alarming rates of toxic exposure-related illnesses, one thing is abundantly clear: Without action, post-9/11 veterans will suffer as Vietnam veterans have," Tester said during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

"This is the first step on a continuum of trying to make certain that those who experienced toxic exposure and, as a result, are suffering in their health and well-being, receive medical benefits," Moran said.

The new proposal comes as the House of Representatives is poised to debate the $282 billion legislative package that would expand health care and provide disability compensation to millions of veterans, including Vietnam vets with hypertension and anyone who has served since 1990 in the Persian Gulf region and elsewhere and has exposure-related illnesses.

Tester has introduced a similar $223 billion bill that has been approved by the Veterans Committee but has yet to be considered by the full Senate.

Both proposals have received pushback from legislators about their cost.

Tester and Moran's bill would be the first step in a three-pronged approach to providing veterans with care and benefits, according to the senators.

"The goal here is to get this done by the end of this Congress," Tester said.

"It's the kind of legislation that would be able to be supported in a bipartisan way and signed by the president," Moran said of the new proposal.

The lawmakers said the latest proposal is supported by the largest veterans service organizations, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, along with Disabled American Veterans, Wounded Warrior Project, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

According to the senators, the next step in expanding benefits to affected veterans would be to ensure that the VA is establishing illnesses that are considered service-connected in a transparent way, followed by providing benefits to ill veterans who have been "long ignored or forgotten."

Moran noted that the VA has been making progress on establishing illnesses presumed related to exposure to burn pits, beginning last year when it named three conditions -- rhinitis, asthma and sinusitis -- as related and eligible for expedited benefits.

"The Department of Veterans Affairs has the authority, legal authority, to deal with presumptions, and they are in the process of doing so," Moran said. "They have a pilot program to determine how best to utilize the authorities they have in regard to presumptions."

The VA also is reviewing data and research to determine whether some types of cancer and a rare lung disease, known as constrictive bronchiolitis, should be added to the list of presumptive illnesses. Decisions on these conditions are expected this year.

In addition to expanding VA health care eligibility, the proposal would require the department to provide screenings for toxic exposure during medical appointments; increase education and training requirements for VA health care and benefits personnel on toxic exposures; and require the department to reach out to veterans on exposures and related VA care and benefits.

The bill also would increase federal research on toxic exposures.

Moran said he expects the bill to pass the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday and be considered by the full chamber shortly.

He also anticipated that a similar bill would be proposed in the House.

"Certainly, there's no question but we're going to work with the House," Moran said. "We are taking our first step, our step of three, and we're guessing the legislation is going to pass Congress."

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: Lawmakers Weigh Breaking Up Toxic Exposures Bill in Face of $282 Billion Price Tag

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