Veterans health bill marks personal victory for Biden

WASHINGTON – As President Joe Biden laid out policy proposals in this year’s State of the Union address, he struck an emotional note when speaking about veterans who suffer from cancer after serving on military bases where toxic smoke rising from burning garbage.

“One of those soldiers was my son, Major Beau Biden,” he said.

The president was careful to avoid drawing a direct line between the hotbeds and his son’s fatal cancer, but he left no doubt that he believed there was a connection. The tragic death of seven years ago makes ceremony Wednesday, when Biden plans to sign legislation expanding federal health care for veterans, among the most personal moments for him since taking office.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Biden was one of the driving forces behind the measure, which passed last week.

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“He was continually insistent because whether Beau died of it or not, I think Joe thinks it had some impact, and so he wanted it fixed,” Tester said. “And because he thinks it was the right thing to do. Such a different president, such a different set of priorities, that probably never would have happened.”

Burn pits have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, medical equipment and human waste. However, 70% of disability claims involving pit exposure were denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The legislation will force officials to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were linked to exposure to the burn pit, helping veterans get disability benefits without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.

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“Veterans who have been sickened to the point of not being able to work, unable to care for their families, will not have to spend that time fighting the government to get the health care they have earned,” said Jeremy Butler, leader of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “It’s monumental.”

Although the fireplace provision has received the most attention, other health care services will also be expanded.

Veterans who have served since the 9/11 attacks will have a decade to enroll in VA health care, double the current five years.

And there’s more help for Vietnam War veterans. The legislation adds hypertension to the list of conditions presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the US military to clear vegetation.

Additionally, veterans who served in the war in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will also be considered to have been exposed to the chemical.

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The legislation is considered the biggest expansion of veterans’ health care in more than three decades, but it became unlikely political football shortly before it was passed.

On the day the Senate was to give it final approval, Republicans unexpectedly blocked it. Veterans who had traveled to Washington for a moment of triumph were devastated.

“All the veterans were there expecting to celebrate,” Butler said. “And then they were absolutely stabbed in the back.”

Republicans have expressed concern about technical changes to the funding legislation. Democrats accused them of throwing a tantrum because they weren’t happy with a separate deal to advance Biden’s domestic agenda on climate change, taxes and prescription drugs.

Instead of returning home, some veterans began holding what they called a “fire watch” outside the Capitol, an impromptu vigil to keep public pressure on the Senate.

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They stayed around the clock, despite the sweltering summer heat and torrential thunderstorms. Jon Stewart, the comedian who championed the veterans, also joined them. Biden wanted to go but couldn’t because he was self-isolating with a coronavirus infection, so he spoke to protesters on a video call when VA Secretary Denis McDonough dropped off a pizza.

Days after the protest began, the Senate held another vote and the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Veterans were in the gallery to watch the vote take place.

“Everyone I was with was bawling. I just screamed,” said Matt Zeller, a former Army captain who was among the protesters. “I cried for a good five minutes.”

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Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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