WASHINGTON — Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., unveiled a massive plan Tuesday to extend disability benefits to veterans of all eras who suffer the effects of toxic exposure, with a particular focus on veterans who served in overseas conflicts since 1990.  

The legislation, titled the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops of War Act of 2021, would create a fast track to Department of Veterans Affairs benefits for veterans who served overseas during the past 31 years and developed a respiratory illness or cancer. It would automatically grant eligibility for VA health care to about 3.5 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In addition, it would reform the VA’s current process of handling claims of toxic exposure. 

The effort includes older veterans, too. The bill calls for presumptive benefits for Vietnam War veterans who have developed hypertension because of exposure to chemical herbicides, as well as veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Guam or American Samoa during certain periods of the 1960s and 1970s and were potentially exposed to herbicides.  

“Decade after decade, our service members have returned home from war only to be met with a piecemeal process as they try to cobble together health care and disability benefits they’ve earned,” Tester said on a phone call with reporters. “I’m proud to unveil my comprehensive and overdue support.”  

Tester is anticipating pushback on the bill because of its cost, which remains unknown but is likely significant. The Congressional Budget Office, which provides cost and economic information to Congress, has not yet shared its cost estimate for the legislation.  

Tester said he’s willing to make some changes to the bill based on feedback from the VA and other senators. However, he said multiple times Tuesday that lawmakers need to acknowledge this a cost of sending service members to war.  

“I don’t know what this costs,” Tester said. “But I’m going to tell you how I approach this: We have to make this thing work financially. … We have an all-volunteer military. If we expect people to step up, we have to make sure we hold up our end of the deal and ensure promises are kept.” 

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which Tester leads, will consider Wednesday whether to advance the legislation to the Senate floor for a vote.  

Also Wednesday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is planning to unveil its own bill directed at veterans suffering from toxic exposure. The House version, the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021, will be introduced during a ceremony outside the Capitol building.  

Comedian Jon Stewart is expected to speak at the event. Stewart became a fierce advocate for 9/11 responders who developed illnesses from the toxic fumes at the destroyed World Trade Center, and he recently turned his attention to veterans suffering from diseases caused by exposure to burn pits and other toxic environments since the Gulf War.  

The two bills are not identical, and Tester said he’s willing to work with House lawmakers to reconcile the differences. Lawmakers hope to pass a bill through Congress by the end of the year.  

“It’s a very high priority for me,” Tester said. “There are going to be times it’s not going as fast as I want it to be. But I’ve instructed my staff to push, push, push, push, push, and they’re going to do it.” 

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., makes his opening statement at a hearing on Capitol Hill, June 27, 2018.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., makes his opening statement at a hearing on Capitol Hill, June 27, 2018. (Stars and Stripes)

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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