Calling it generations in the making, Sens. Jon Tester and Jerry Moran unveiled legislation on Thursday that looks to deliver all generations of veterans who were exposed to toxic conditions the healthcare and benefits they earned in service.

Tester, a Democrat and Moran, a Kansas Republican, said the bipartisan measure is long overdue and will likely stand up to scrutiny when the Senate takes it up next month, given its support from the nation's veteran service organizations and the VA healthcare system.

“It's the most comprehensive toxic exposure package for veterans that Congress has ever delivered in this country's history,” Tester said in a media call on Thursday. “It literally has been decades in the making.”

Toxic exposure has been around since World War I, where troops encountered mustard gas. In World War II, veterans were exposed to radiation. In the Persian Gulf War, front line troops encountered burning oil wells and the Post-911 era, toxic exposure came from burn pits.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Tester suggested that more than 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to some form of toxic condition as detailed in the bill. The measure would add a structure through which the VA can deal with toxic exposure without the intervention of Congress.

It also adds capacity for the VA to deal with toxic exposure, and it labels around 23 conditions related to burn-pit exposure that would be phased in over time. It bolsters VA training on the issue and expands eligibility for treatment and benefits.

“This bill will address decades of inaction and failure by the U.S. Government to do the right thing by delivering toxic-exposed veterans their long overdue healthcare and benefits,” Tester said. “While the costs of doing this are significant, right now the only ones paying that cost are the veterans, and they can't wait any longer.”

The Senate has held hearings on the legislation for nearly two years, though the debate over toxic exposure is decades old. This time, however, nearly all veteran service organizations aligned in support for the measure, saying it was now the top issue facing their members.

Moran described the legislation as a “significant success.”

“It's an example of Republicans and Democrats coming together to make sure our veterans – in this case particularly Iraq and Afghanistan and our veterans who served in Vietnam – will finally have a path at the Department of Veterans Affairs to receive benefits and healthcare for the damages they encountered,” Moran said Thursday.

While the cost of the legislation may rankle some, Tester said Congress didn't talk about cost when it sent the nation's veterans off to war. He added that pressure from the VSO's helped spawn the legislation, which was compiled from past bills that never went to a vote.

“This will take care of the past wrongs where the government hasn't stepped up,” Tester said. “When I say it's a generational piece of legislation, it truly is.”