House lawmakers weigh efforts to help burn pit-exposed vets, cut Agent Orange benefits expansion

Photo credit Department of Veterans Affairs

House lawmakers passed several amendments into the annual defense spending bill aimed at helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during service. But they also removed a measure that would have expanded benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange who have bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson's.

House lawmakers voted on packages of hundreds of amendments proposed for the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass omnibus annual bill that sets the budget, and some policy, for the Defense Department. Since the bill is one of those all but guaranteed to pass in recent years, it's prime real estate for major military and veterans legislation, including on toxic exposure.

Veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during service got several nods in the bill, while veterans exposed to Agent Orange were nixed. 

The House Committee on Rules sent six amendments to the House floor Monday for debate that specifically mentioned burn pits: 

  • An amendment to require the Pentagon/Department of Veterans Affairs to ask troops and veterans who tested positive for a pandemic virus such as COVID-19 if they were exposed to burn pits, so VA and DoD can address their medical needs. The measure also requires the federal agencies to enroll those veterans who say they were exposed to burn pits in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry unless they opt out.  (Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine)
  • An amendment that requires the Pentagon to provide a report to Congress about all the studies the department is conducting or funding on the health effects of burn pits and when they will be complete. (Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-California)
  • An amendment requiring the Defense Department to establish mandatory training for all its medical providers on the health effects of burn pits. (Ruiz)
  • An amendment requiring the Defense Department to include a separate, standalone question about burn pit exposure in the Post-Deployment Health Assessment (DD Form 2796) to increase reporting of burn-pit exposure. (Ruiz)
  • An amendment requiring the Pentagon and VA to expand the burn pit registry to include Egypt and Syria. (Ruiz)
  • An amendment requiring the history of respiratory illnesses and information from the burn pit registry on beneficiaries be included in the Tricare COVID-19 registry. (Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont)

Agent Orange

A bipartisan measure introduced by Rep. Josh Harder, D-California, that would have forced VA to expand benefits to veterans exposed to Agent Orange who have bladder cancer, hypothyroidism or Parkinson's was cut from a massive list of amendments sent to the House floor Monday.

A spokesman for Harder told Connecting Vets that the amendment was not ruled in order by the House Rules Committee, so it was not included in the package of hundreds of amendments sent to the floor.

Sources with knowledge of negotiations said cost was a leading factor in the decision not to move the House version of the amendment forward, but said advocates hope the Senate version will get the 60 votes necessary when it heads to the floor of that chamber instead. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.

As lawmakers in both chambers reconcile their separate versions on the massive defense spending bill, that Senate amendment will have to survive long enough to be included in the final joint bill sent to the president later this year. 

Sen. Jon Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, are championing their chamber's version of the amendment, folding Tester's Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act into the massive bill. 

Schumer said earlier this month that the measure "will pass" and "we're about to win this fight" which could expand benefits to more than 22,000 veterans.