Senate passes amended version of PACT act, providing health care benefits to veterans

(CNN) — A wide bipartisan majority approved the long-awaited PACT act bill by a vote of 84-14. It will now go to the House of Representatives, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to move quickly and send it to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.

The bill is an amended version of the Honoring Our PACT Act that passed the House earlier this year.

“Today is a historic, long awaited day for our nation’s veterans,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a floor speech on Thursday ahead of the vote. “In a few moments, the Senate is finally going to pass the PACT Act, the most significant expansion of health care benefits to our veterans in generations.”

Schumer continued, “The callousness of forcing veterans who got sick as they were fighting for us because of exposure to these toxins to have to fight for years in the VA to get the benefits they deserved — Well, that will soon be over. Praise God.”

Burn pits were commonly used to burn waste, including everyday trash, munitions, hazardous material and chemical compounds at military sites throughout Iraq and Afghanistan until about 2010.

These massive open-air burn pits, which were often operated at or near military bases, released dangerous toxins into the air that, upon exposure, may have caused short- and long-term health conditions, according to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

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 VA has denied approximately 70% of veterans’ burn pit claims since 9/11, according to previous statements by Sen.

Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican and ranking GOP member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The legislation is years in the making, and, once signed into law, would amount to a major bipartisan victory.

“The Senate has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity today to make history,” Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Wednesday on the Senate floor ahead of a key procedural vote to advance the bill toward final passage. “This bill isn’t about Democrats versus Republicans. It’s not about political posturing. It’s about Americans standing up for those who have served and sacrificed on behalf of this country. … In fact, it’s even more than that. It’s about righting a wrong that has been ignored for too damn long.”

Passage of the bill — called the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 — will also mark a huge achievement for Biden, who has championed the legislation and has been personally affected by the issue.

Biden believes burn pits may have caused the brain cancer that killed his son Beau, an Iraq War veteran, in 2015. During his State of the Union address earlier this year, Biden called on Congress to pass this legislation.

“This is not only about our service men and women, the people who served in our military, it’s about their families,” Tester added. “Because when folks go to war, it’s not just the service person who does it, it’s everybody in their family. And what this bill will do is it will address decades of inaction and failure by our government, expanding eligibility for VA health care to more than 3.5 million combat veterans exposed to burn pits.”

Among the bill’s priorities, it would widely expand health care resources and benefits to former military service members exposed to burn pits and could provide coverage for up to 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans. It adds 23 conditions related to burn pit and toxic exposure, including hypertension, to the VA’s list of illnesses that have been incurred or exacerbated during military service, removing the burden for veterans to prove that their toxic exposure resulted in these conditions.

The bill also calls for investments in VA health care facilities, claims processing and the VA workforce while also strengthening federal research on toxic exposure, which has been a priority for Biden as well.

“We still have our work cut out as a Congress, as a Senate to make sure that the promises that are made in this bill are promises that are kept,” Moran said Wednesday in a floor speech. “This bill was designed to fix a broken system that has been cobbled together over decades of patchwork fixes.”

Veterans’ groups have long pressed lawmakers to approve comprehensive burn pit legislation, as former servicemembers struggled to deal with the medical and resulting financial fallout from toxic burn pit exposure.

Comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, an advocate for 9/11 first responders and victims, has also been a high-profile figure in the effort to raise attention to the issue and push for a legislative solution.

“The bottom line is our country exposed our own veterans to poison for years, and we knew about it, and we did not act with urgency and appropriateness,” Stewart said earlier this year at a virtual roundtable with the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “And therefore, we’ve lost men and women who served this country. They’ve died out of our inaction.”

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) released the following statement after voting no on the PACT Act:

“I have long been involved in addressing the issue of toxic exposure, ensuring toxic-exposed veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned and deserve. I strongly support the goal of the PACT Act and I drafted large portions of the legislative text. The package includes the TEAM Act, legislation I introduced that establishes an enduring, scientifically-backed framework for determining past, present, and future presumptions. Additionally, this legislation includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, introduced by Senator Burr and myself. Congress has an obligation to ensure the VA can effectively and efficiently implement any comprehensive toxic exposure legislation and, unfortunately, I continue to have reservations about the Department’s ability to do so.

“While well-intentioned, the PACT Act creates new promises to veterans while breaking existing ones, which is why I could not support its passage. Just this week, I listened to Secretary McDonough describe the challenges the VA is facing in meeting current obligations and it’s clear that the Department does not have the capacity to properly implement the PACT Act. This legislation will have adverse operational and administrative impacts, and I remain concerned that it will result in increased wait times, delays in receiving care, and a substantial increase in the claims backlog. I fully expect that in the coming years, Congress will be forced to make substantial changes to account for these unintended consequences.

“This is why I advocated for a bipartisan amendment process that would have undoubtedly strengthened this legislation and ensured that the VA was fully prepared for implementation. However, Majority Leader Schumer refused to allow improvements to the bill to be considered. Despite this, I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues and the VA to ensure these operational impacts are mitigated in the coming years.”

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