U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Darryl Sterling tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, on March 10, 2008.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Darryl Sterling tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, on March 10, 2008. (Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — The House Committee on Veterans Affairs advanced a bill Thursday that aims to create a fast-track to Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and health care for millions of veterans suffering the effects of military toxic exposure.

The lawmakers voted 14-11 to advance the bill — a move the committee chairman, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said would kickstart in-depth negotiations with the Senate about legislation that Congress would approve.

“Right now, only certain veterans exposed to certain toxins during a particular time window are eligible to access care and benefits through the VA,” Takano said. “The process places the burden on the veteran, and even if the veteran has proof, they might not qualify. It’s time to change that.”

The bill, titled the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021, is similar to a bill that the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee advanced earlier this month. The House bill goes further than the Senate’s, including more cancers and respiratory illnesses on the list of conditions that would qualify veterans for VA benefits and health care.

The vote Thursday was along party lines, with no Republicans voting in favor of it. Several Republicans spoke out Thursday, saying there were too many unanswered questions and no realistic path for the bill to pass through Congress.

Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the ranking Republican on the committee, tried multiple times to postpone the vote, but failed. Bost said that VA officials, nor anyone else from President Joe Biden’s administration, had provided feedback on the bill, and the department hadn’t answered questions about how the legislation might effect VA infrastructure, IT, staffing and delivery of health care and benefits.

“I wish I could support [this bill], but the fact is, we simply do not have the information we need to report the bill out of committee,” Bost said. “We have no idea what the VA’s views are on this bill, no idea what the Biden administration supports in it or doesn’t, or what their input is.”

Bost urged the Biden administration to be “meaningful partners” in the negotiation of the bill. VA Secretary Denis McDonough has previously refused to take a position on the bills in Congress to expand benefits and health care for veterans suffering the effects of toxic exposure. The department is working on its own solution and announced last month it would initiate the federal rulemaking process to consider adding more conditions to the list of conditions presumed to be caused by toxic burn pits.

In addition to input from the VA, Bost wanted to know the final cost estimate for the bill. A preliminary estimate from the Congressional Budget Office determined the legislation could cost about $1 trillion in new mandatory spending over the next 10 years, Bost said.

“There’s been no discussion about how we’re going to pay for that,” he said. “The conclusion is clear – we have a lot more work to do. We cannot responsibly vote this bill out today.”

Takano reiterated that the action Thursday was “not the end of the process” and there would be changes to the bill.

Both bills would automatically grant eligibility for VA health care to about 3.5 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and reform the VA’s current process of handling claims of toxic exposure.

Like the Senate version, the House bill includes older veterans. 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 and Cambodia and were potentially exposed to herbicides. It also includes veterans who participated in toxic cleanup activities in Enewetak Atoll or Palomares, Spain.

While the Senate bill adds 11 respiratory illnesses and cancers to the list, the House is seeking to add 23.

“We’ll now begin in-depth negotiations on a final legislative package,” Takano said. “There will be time to discuss [costs] and views, but we have momentum on our side now.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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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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