Washington DC — Legislation to expand healthcare to veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances while serving in the military was sent into limbo by the US Senate in a 55-42 vote.
This comes after the bill had already been passed by the Senate, 84-14, in June. The bill then went to the House, where it was passed 342-88. However, the House made some amendments, which necessitated a new vote in the Senate.
All ‘No’ votes came from GOP House and Senate members.
Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who voted against the bill the second time, said, “The PACT Act as written includes a budget gimmick that would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory funds.”
The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act would allow the US Department of Veterans Affairs to provide preventive care to veterans exposed to toxic fumes.
The Honoring our PACT Act would be the largest veterans’ health care bill in decades and would expand VA health care to more than 3.5 million veterans.
The bill is named after SFC Heath Robinson, who died in 2020 because of toxic exposure during his time in military service in both Kosovo and Iraq as part of the Ohio National Guard.
It is unclear what will happen with the bill now. Republican Sen. John Cornyn did tell Roll Call that he expected the bill would “ultimately” pass with Republicans hoping there “will be a negotiation to eliminate some of the mandatory spending.”
The bill was introduced by Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan) and Jon Tester (D-Mont), both of whom were pleased by the passage of the bill that they shepherded through the process in June.
“Veterans suffering from toxic exposures have been relying on a broken system cobbled together through decades of patchwork fixes that often leaves them without health care or benefits,” Moran said. “The Senate took a consequential step to right this wrong.”
“For hundreds of thousands of veterans, generations of our all-volunteer military and their families, this bill is putting us on a path to finally recognizing the toxic wounds of war,” Tester said.
Tester’s tune changed after the July 27 vote that placed the bill in turnaround.
“What happened yesterday is totally unacceptable,” he said. “What happened is, they voted against the men and women who fight for this country who want to come back to civilian life and have a normal life.”
Democratic Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey was also full of praise for the passage of the bill in June.
“We will never be able to fully repay our service members and their families for their sacrifice, but we can, and we must, take care of them now,” Casey said. “This bill is a historic win for our veterans and our country,” Tester said to the American Legion.
American veterans have long suffered from exposure to toxic substances, but the VA has not recognized the effects of toxic exposure on veterans or provided care to those suffering from such exposure.
This legislation would add 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to VA’s presumption list so that veterans can easily access health care to cover treatment of these conditions. Conditions will be phased in annually until 2025.
The Honoring Our PACT Act would do the following:
- Improve the VA’s presumption process and the ability of veterans to receive care for new toxic exposures by creating a framework for the establishment of future toxic exposure-related presumptions of service connection
- Bolster the VA’s toxic exposure resources by providing every veteran a toxic exposure screening at VA medical appointments and increasing toxic exposure-related education and training for VA health care and benefits personnel
- Strengthen toxic exposure War research by studies on the mortality of veterans who served in Southwest Asia during the Gulf, Post-9/11 veterans’ health trends and veterans’ cancer rates
- Set up the VA to successfully support the increased needs of veterans by boosting the VA’s claims processing capacity, strengthening the VA’s workforce and investing in 31 new VA health care facilities, including one $31.8 million outpatient clinic near Allentown, PA. This clinic would expand primary care, mental health, specialty care and ancillary services currently offered at the existing Allentown Satellite Outpatient Clinic, in support of the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military disposed of excess materials and waste by incinerating them in large “burn pits,” often located near bases.
These burn pits contained hazardous materials and as a result, burn pits emitted toxic fumes. According to a survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 86% of veterans of these wars were exposed to burn pits during their time in the service. Researchers have linked burn pit exposure to dozens of medical conditions, including chronic bronchitis, constrictive bronchiolitis, asthma, and lung cancer.