Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledged Tuesday to bring a massive veterans toxic exposure bill to a vote this year, saying the legislation is needed to ensure that veterans sickened by environmental exposures get health care and disability compensation before they die.
Speaking at a press conference alongside lawmakers, advocates and affected veterans, Schumer said the bill would deliver care and compensation without requiring veterans to "hire a lawyer."
"Veterans deserve a hell of a lot better than to have to claw their way through government bureaucracies just to get the basic benefits to treat conditions they incurred in their service," Schumer said.
The $208 billion Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act, passed the House on March 3 in a 256-174 vote.
But it faces tough opposition in the Senate, where a $1 billion bill already has passed that would immediately provide health care to post 9/11 veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxins but doesn't include many of the automatic benefits and additional requirements of the PACT Act.
The PACT Act would designate 23 diseases as presumed to be linked to burn pits and other airborne pollution, and it would extend coverage to veterans exposed to other pollutants such as radiation, as well as Vietnam veterans suffering hypertension and those exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
It could affect up to 3.5 million veterans in the coming years.
During a hearing on the topic Tuesday, members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee sought to find common ground on the proposal, questioning VA Secretary Denis McDonough on his priorities in the bill.
McDonough said the VA supports the legislation but has some concerns, particularly over the impact of an influx of claims on the health-care system.
The secretary said the VA will need to hire more personnel to handle potentially as many as 1.5 million new claims, the additional patient load and possibly require building extra "physical infrastructure" that would increase cost estimates.
Still, McDonough said, President Joe Biden "has made it very clear, though. We support the PACT Act."
"We support the bill for many reasons, but the first is that it helps VA accomplish a primary goal of getting more veterans into VA care because study after study shows that vets in VA care do better," McDonough said.
Among the concerns voiced by members of the committee were the potential influx of so many new claims from veterans and the impact on health-care services overall of a sudden surge of patients. The department currently has a backlog of 240,000 claims -- filings they are working to review, having hired new personnel and automating some of the processes -- that would grow with new claims.
The PACT Act "includes provisions that will perhaps stretch the VA beyond its operational capacity, effectively providing no guarantee that veterans will be able to access benefits," said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the committee's highest-ranking Republican.
Bill supporters say the legislation in some form must be passed as a cost of war. Committee Chairman Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who introduced a bill late last year that included expanded health coverage similar to the PACT Act, said as the committee considers crafting its own version of the legislation, that he’s committed to finding a way to expand care for affected veterans.
"As we consider the reforms in this bill, we should be very clear about our goals. We're here to do right," Tester said.
Neither Tester nor Moran gave a timeline for crafting a new version of the bill. McDonough promised that he would provide the committee with additional data they requested as part of the effort by late spring.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.