House passes bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits

The House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. Pictured is a burn pit on March 22, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

By Clare Foran and Kristin Wilson, CNN

(CNN) -- The House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday aimed at helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

The final vote was 256 to 174, with 34 Republicans joining all Democrats in voting for the legislation.

The legislation is called the Honoring our PACT Act, which stands for Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics. It was introduced by House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, a California Democrat, and has bipartisan support. The bill would expand health care eligibility for former military service members exposed to burn pits and other toxins and could provide coverage for up to 3.5 million veterans.

Burn pits were used to incinerate and burn waste, hazardous material, and chemical compounds at military sites throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2020 member survey by the advocacy organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that 86% of respondents were exposed to burn pits or other toxins.

The Senate has its own version of the bill, meaning the two chambers will have to reconcile the differences between their bills and likely re-vote on the final package before sending it to President Joe Biden's desk for his signature.

Biden described the horrors of burn pit exposure during his State of the Union address Tuesday and called for congressional action to address the issue.

"Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced many dangers," Biden said, "I've been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan over 40 times, these burn pits that incinerate the waste of war — medical and hazardous material, jet fuel, and so much more. They came home, many of the world's fittest and best trained warriors in the world, never the same: headaches, numbness, dizziness, a cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin."

Speaking directly to members of Congress, Biden said, "Pass a law to make sure veterans devastated by toxic exposures in Iraq and Afghanistan finally get the benefits and the comprehensive health care they deserve."

Under the Honoring our PACT Act, 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers, including any type of lymphoma or respiratory cancer, would be considered to have been incurred or exacerbated during military service, removing the burden for veterans to prove their toxic exposure resulted in these conditions.

The Senate passed its own bill in February aimed at helping former military service members suffering from toxic burn pit exposure.

The two bills next go through a reconciliation process -- either through a formal conference committee or a negotiation process -- before a final piece of legislation can be approved by both chambers and signed by the President into law.

The Senate bill is the first part of a three-step, bipartisan approach the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee is undertaking in an effort to address the issue. The committee is currently working on the second phase of the effort with a goal of having it ready for Senate floor action in the coming months.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined a group of lawmakers and advocates at a Wednesday news conference to push for passage of the House bill.

"This is a cost of war that we should recognize," Pelosi said, calling the legislation, "long overdue."

Comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, who has been a longtime advocate for 9/11 first responders and victims, has been a high-profile figure in the effort to get help for veterans who have been exposed to burn pits.

"The learning curve of this country over how we treat our veterans when they come home from war is so painfully slow, the pace is unacceptable," Stewart said at the same news conference.

"It's so exciting to see that the obstacles that they have faced over all these years are starting to clear, that the boulder that they have carried, and the burden that they've carried is finally getting towards the top of that hill," he said.

This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.

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