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. 

So far, VA covers 14 illnesses linked to the toxic herbicide used during the Vietnam War. But VA leaders have resisted or delayed adding four additional illnesses -- hypertension (high blood pressure), bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism, leaving thousands of aging and ill veterans without disability benefits for those issues. 

The U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons of multiple herbicides over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, including Agent Orange.

Lawmakers advocating for the change have said they're also aiming to add a fourth illness -- hypertension, or high blood pressure -- to VA's list of covered Agent Orange-linked diseases, but that illness is one that has faced the most opposition from VA leaders and lawmakers concerned with cost.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has said repeatedly he disagreed with National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine scientists' findings in 2016 and 2018 that link Agent Orange exposure to the four diseases, a decision VA says could cost from $11.2 billion to $15.2 billion. 

Lawmakers and veterans' groups have for months repeatedly called on Wilkie and the White House to extend benefits and help an aging population of veterans and their families. So far, Wilkie has said he awaits the results of VA's in-house studies. The White House has been silent, lawmakers, Congressional staff and VSOs told Connecting Vets.

Wilkie said he would likely not make a decision on his own on expanding benefits for the four illnesses until "late 2020.

In 2017, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin decided to add more diseases to the VA's list of health concerns that qualify a veteran for Agent Orange disability benefits. According to documents obtained by a veteran through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to Connecting Vets, White House officials stood in Shulkin's way expressing concern about the cost of covering additional diseases and requesting more research. Military Times' Patricia Kime first reported on the documents.  

A list of the diseases currently linked to Agent Orange and eligible for benefits can be found here

Lawmakers to push VA to expand benefits for more Agent Orange-linked diseases in defense bill

Sen. Schumer pushes for VA to expand benefits for more Agent Orange-linked illnesses

Senators introduce bill to force VA to extend benefits for 4 Agent Orange-linked diseases

Congressmen 'demand' White House stop blocking VA from helping Agent Orange-exposed vets

Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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