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VA adds nine respiratory cancers to toxic exposure benefits list

House and Senate each approved bills, but they are far apart on cost

Senate Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., has voiced support for a House bill on veterans' exposure to toxins, but Republicans have called that bill too expensive.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., has voiced support for a House bill on veterans' exposure to toxins, but Republicans have called that bill too expensive. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Department of Veterans Affairs added nine rare respiratory cancers to its list of diseases that qualify for benefits due to toxic exposure, a move that will make it easier for veterans who served near burn pits to receive care and benefits.

The department’s interim final rule will apply to veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan, among others, and comes as Congress debates legislation to expand health care to veterans who experienced toxic exposure and the White House pushes the effort.

The VA first proposed the rule after President Joe Biden’s 2022 State of the Union address, when the president called on Congress to do more to help veterans who served near burn pits. The president’s son, Beau Biden, died of a rare brain cancer after serving near a burn pit in Iraq.

“We learned a horrible lesson after Vietnam, when the harmful effects of exposure to Agent Orange sometimes took years to manifest, and too many veterans were left unable to access the care they needed. I refuse to repeat that mistake when it comes to the veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Biden said in a statement Monday morning.

The VA rule covers nine lung cancers and veterans who served in Southwest Asia during the Persian Gulf War as well as Afghanistan, Syria, Djibouti or Uzbekistan on or after Sept. 19, 2001. The VA said it hopes to make it easier for veterans to prove the root cause of their health condition when applying for benefits.

Legislative battle

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has said he wants the Senate to pass toxic exposure legislation by the end of the year. The House passed legislation (HR 3967) in March that would be more costly than the Senate approach.

The House bill is more wide-ranging than the Senate bill and the Congressional Budget Office estimates it would cost more than $300 billion over a decade. The bill passed the Democratically controlled House with support from 30 Republicans, and from the White House.

The Senate approved more narrow toxic exposure legislation (S 3541) in February that would not automatically make a determination on disability compensation. This bill would cost less — roughly $1 billion over a decade. The House hasn’t taken up the Senate-passed bill.

Republicans in the Senate say the House bill is too expensive, but many Democrats in both chambers say the Senate bill doesn’t go far enough to help veterans.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chair Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, who introduced the Senate-passed bill, also supports the House-passed legislation. But Senate Republicans, including the committee’s ranking member, Jerry Moran of Kansas, are concerned the VA doesn’t have the manpower to implement the House bill. 

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