The Senate voted Thursday to pass legislation to deliver comprehensive health care and increased benefits to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan exposed to toxic burn pits.
The PACT Act, also known as the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, will largely expand eligibility for free medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, for thousands of veterans who have been exposed to toxic chemicals.
Over the last two decades, it is reported that around 3.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans may have been exposed to dangerous chemicals while in the line of duty, according to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The bill passed in a widely bipartisan 84-14 vote, with more than a dozen Republicans voting against the measure. Notable "no" votes included Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Rand Paul, R-Ky., Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Thom Tillis, R-N.C. and Pat Toomey, R-Penn.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the committee, called the bill the “most comprehensive toxic exposure package the Senate has ever delivered to veterans.”
Speaking in the Senate chamber on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., stressed the pressing need for the PACT Act.
“Our veterans have waited long enough for their healthcare benefits to treat complications from toxic exposure,” said Schumer. “Burn pits were a common method of eliminating all sorts of waste throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many veterans have developed terrible diseases because of their exposure to the toxic waste.”
Schumer explained that in recent years, the Veterans’ Administration had rejected 80% of disability claims related to burn pits. “What an indignity,” he said to his fellow lawmakers. “What an injustice.”
The PACT Act will add health conditions related to burn pit exposure to the list of “presumptive conditions,” allowing veterans to obtain disability payments for their injuries related to toxic waste as well as free health care.
Last week, President Joe Biden, a staunch supporter of the PACT Act, spoke about the harms of toxic burn pits. For the president, the issue is a personal one: Biden has said previously he believes there is a link between burn pits and the death of his son, Beau Biden, who died in 2015 from an aggressive form of brain cancer.
“We need to talk about burn pits that incinerate wastes of war tires, poisonous chemicals, jet fuels and so much more,” Biden said during a bill signing ceremony earlier this month. “Toxic smoke with thick poison, spreading through our bases and into the lungs of our troops. And when they came home, many of the fittest and best-trained warriors we’ve ever had were not the same. Headaches, numbness, dizziness. Cancer. My son Beau was one of them.”
There is not yet scientific evidence to establish that link.
Not only will this bill expand health coverage for veterans who served post-9/11, but the bill would also extend coverage to health issues caused by Agent Orange, a toxic deforestation chemical used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
The bipartisan legislation also requires the Veterans’ Administration to provide an eligible veteran with a medical examination and the VA will begin screening incoming veterans to determine potential toxic exposure as a part of its primary care services.
In addition, increased funding will be allocated to strengthening federal research on toxic exposure and improving the VA’s resources and training for toxic-exposed veterans.
The bill will increase federal spending by an estimated $280 billion over 10 years.