FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- Millions of military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in war zones are a step closer to receiving healthcare benefits from the federal government.
A bill passed the Senate by a vote of 84-14 Thursday to add $283 billion over 10 years to help these veterans in need. The 14 votes against the bill were all from Republicans and include both North Carolina Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.
For years advocates pressured lawmakers to help the millions of sick veterans being denied medical claims related to exposure to the burn pits.
The military routinely used open burn pits set ablaze with jet fuel to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill would expand military veterans' eligibility for medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs by extending coverage for 10 years after discharge instead of the current five years.
Retired Vietnam Veteran Benjamin Washington, 80, can still remember the odor and stench of the burn pits used during his service in Vietnam.
"It's that smell...you want to get rid of that smell, but it's your job and you got to take care of it," he recalled. "As a leader you know you got to get rid of it, because you didn't want to get germs spread all around."
Since returning from Vietnam, Washington has seen the struggle each generation of veterans has faced--many who are no longer around to share their story.
"If you're prepared to send young people into harm's way, you better be prepared to take care of them when they get back and have the resources to do so," Washington said.
If this latest bill passes the House, it would also presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing the veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service. Currently, more than 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data and information from the Defense Department.
The legislation would also benefit many Vietnam War-era veterans by including high blood pressure in the list of conditions presumed to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange. And, it would extend Agent Orange presumptions to veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam and American Samoa.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., described the bill as "the greatest advance in veterans health care in decades." He said scores of America's veterans went off to serve their country in perfect health only to come back and get sick from toxic exposure, and, when they applied for disability benefits, oftentimes found out they didn't qualify.
"It's a confounding indignity for our nation's heroes to sacrifice everything for our country only to come home, get sick and discover the VA is not there for them," Schumer said.
A 2020 study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that health studies provided insufficient evidence to determine whether exposure to burn pit emissions is linked to 27 adverse respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer. The authors of the study said the uncertainty doesn't mean that there is no association - only that there was insufficient data to draw definitive conclusions.
But lawmakers said that stories from constituents tell a different and more definitive tale, and they are reluctant to wait for an irrefutable link between veterans' maladies and their exposure to toxic burn pits.
"Whenever you have to make that connection airtight, that's difficult on many things," said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind. "In this case, I think the evidence is such that there's some causal relationship. I hear from so many that were over there and got the symptoms fairly close after their service was over. That's not now and then. You hear it fairly often."
This proposed expansion of health care and disability benefits could also tax an already stressed VA system, which lawmakers sought to address by authorizing 31 new medical clinics in 19 states and boosting investments in computer systems for the processing of disability claims.
The Senate version trimmed some of the costs early on by phasing in certain benefit enhancements. Sen. Jon Tester, the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the bill was "about righting a wrong that has been ignored too damn long."
"There's always cost of war," Tester said, "and that cost is never fully paid when the war ends."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.