Lawmakers have reached a bipartisan agreement on a historic expansion of health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic chemicals during their military service.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and committee ranking member Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., announced in a Wednesday morning statement that they have reached an agreement on what they called "the most comprehensive toxic exposure package the Senate has ever delivered to veterans in this country's history."
"For far too long, our nation's veterans have been living with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform," they added. "Today, we're taking necessary steps to right this wrong with our proposal that'll provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve."
The bill could help an estimated 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other airborne hazards while serving to get medical coverage and other benefits they have often been denied under Department of Veterans Affairs arguments that there was not enough evidence linking their diseases to their military service.
The full text of the agreement was not immediately released, but a summary included in Tester and Moran's news release indicates it retains some of the key provisions of a wide-ranging House-passed toxic exposure bill, such as designating 23 diseases, including hypertension, as presumed to be linked to burn pits and other airborne hazards.
The bill, now named the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act in honor of a veteran who died of lung cancer after being exposed to burn pits in Iraq, would also create a framework for establishing future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure, according to the summary.
The House passed its sweeping toxic exposure bill in a 256-174 vote in March. But most Republicans bristled at its $208 billion price tag and opposed the House legislation.
A cost estimate for the new agreement was not immediately released.
In response to critics of the price, senators had previously planned to address toxic exposure in three prongs, the first of which was easily approved by the upper chamber in February.
But veterans advocates decried the piecemeal approach, and President Joe Biden made passing comprehensive legislation one of his top priorities.
Biden, who believes his son Beau's fatal brain cancer may have been caused by burn pits in Iraq and Kosovo, said in a statement last month that if Congress passes a comprehensive bill, he "will sign it immediately."
Right now, the VA makes case-by-case decisions on most claims by post-9/11 veterans that their illnesses were caused by toxic exposure, requiring vets to produce proof their disease is connected with their service. Some illnesses are already presumed to be linked to service, including asthma, rhinitis, sinusitis and several respiratory-related cancers.
In addition to expanding benefits for post-9/11 veterans, the agreement announced Wednesday broadens coverage for Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Specifically, it would add Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll to the list of places where veterans were exposed to Agent Orange and so can get coverage.
The agreement also includes provisions to strengthen federal research on toxic exposure, increase toxic exposure-related training for VA personnel, establish 31 new VA health care facilities in 19 states, and invest more money in VA claims processing and the VA workforce, according to the summary.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced from the Senate floor that he "strongly" supports the agreement and plans to have his chamber vote on it the week of June 6, the first week back from the Senate's Memorial Day recess.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., also said in a statement he was "elated" at the agreement -- indicating it will pass both chambers of Congress and become law.
"I'm proud that both the House and Senate have now taken monumental steps forward to advance this historic legislation, and I look forward to continuing to work with Sen. Tester and Sen. Moran on the final details to ensure this vital legislation heads to President Biden's desk without delay," Takano said. "We cannot let cost or implementation hurdles get in the way of making good on our promise -- toxic-exposed veterans do not have time to wait."
Advocates who have been pushing the Senate to take up the House bill and knocking Republican opposition hailed the agreement Wednesday.
Rosie Torres, who cofounded Burn Pits 360 in 2009 with her husband, Le Roy Torres, an Army veteran who developed a rare lung disease, constrictive bronchiolitis, as a result of his deployment to Iraq, called the agreement a "victory" for all veterans who have died as a result of illnesses caused by environmental pollutants
"After 13 years of Burn Pits 360 veterans and families knocking on doors and being 'boots on the ground' in Washington, we are encouraged by the progress," Torres told Military.com. "We are seeing Congress stand on the side of justice in support of our nation's warfighters."
-- Patricia Kime contributed to this story. She can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.