WASHINGTON – After years of activism and a brief uproar over budget technicalities, the Senate approved the PACT Law, a bill that provides easier access to health care for veterans exposed to toxic combustion pits,
The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 86-11 on Tuesday and sent it to President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it into law. Republicans cast all 11 votes against the bill.
“This Senate will pass the most significant expansion of veterans’ health care benefits in generations,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY., said on the Senate floor before the vote. “This is a very good day, a long-awaited day, a day that should have happened a long time ago.”
What are burn pits and what does the bill do?
burning pits – open dump sites that dispose of military waste by burning – have exposed an estimated 3.5 million veterans to toxic chemicals that could lead to respiratory illnesses or various forms of cancer, according to the Department of Defense.
Veterans who have illnesses from exposure to burn pits are frequently denied disability benefits and medical care due to a lack of concrete evidence directly linking burn pits to illness.
The bill, called the PACT Act, would remedy that by codifying a link between specific diseases and burn cancers, removing the burden of proof on veterans to receive benefits.
With that direct link established, the bill will provide much easier access to health care and disability benefits to the estimated 3.5 million exposed veterans who previously had to discuss their illnesses with the Department of Veterans Affairs. .
What people say?
In remarks on the House floor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: “Toxic exposure is a cost of war, and we need to treat it as such. This is not an issue of dollars, it is a question of values”.
A statement issued by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., mocked the cost of the bills, saying the bill had a “budget trick” and was another form of ” reckless spending. McCarthy was one of 88 negative votes on the bill in the House.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told USA Today that “it’s a huge win for veterans. One of the most important things we’ve ever done for veterans.”
On the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Ranking Member Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, implored his colleagues to “deliver the most comprehensive toxic exposure package to veterans in the history of our country.
Jon Stewart, a comedian and former “Daily Show” host, has been one of the bill’s most outspoken supporters. Speaking on the steps of the Capitol on Monday, Stewart said “we all owe (veterans) a debt of gratitude. And it’s about time we started paying it.”
An issue close to Biden’s heart
Biden has a personal stake in the bill, as glioblastoma, the cancer that killed his son Major Beau Biden, is one of the coded cancers. In his State of the Union address, alluded to the possible connection between the burning pits and the death of his son.
“I don’t know for sure if the combustion pit that he lived near, that his shack was near in Iraq and before that in Kosovo is the cause of his brain cancer and the illness of many other troops.”
The bill was long awaited by veterans and activists who have pushed for any semblance of federal action for victims of burned wells. While research is still underway to establish a direct correlation between burned areas and illnesses, both activists and Biden have said action is needed now rather than wait.
Visiting a clinic for veterans affairs in Fort Worth, Texas, in March, Biden emphasized the importance of some kind of legislation on burning pits.
“When the evidence doesn’t give a clear answer one way or the other, the decision we should favor is to take care of our veterans while we continue to learn more, not wait,” he said. “We are not waiting.”
The bill was originally scheduled to become law before Congress’s July 4 recess, but hit a procedural hurdle that delayed passage.
The Senate inserted a tax provision into the bill when the Constitution says tax provisions must originate in the House, meaning the bill at the time was technically unconstitutional.
Both houses blamed each other for not noticing the mishap and letting it slide, but the House later resolved the issue and sent the bill back to the Senate.
In June, the bill passed the Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 84 to 14. The bill, largely unchanged, was later blocked by 41 Republican senators over what they say was a budget issue between spending mandatory and discretionary.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, introduced an amendment that he said would eliminate a “budget gimmick” for what he said would be an “unrelated spending party.” Toomey said it was worth the bill’s delay and back-and-forth to put a “spotlight” on Democrats. The amendment failed on a 47-48 vote when 60 votes were required.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate Passes Toxic Burn Pit Bill, Expanding Benefits for Veterans