(CNN) — The Senate on Thursday passed historic legislation that would help millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service.
A broad, cross-party majority approved the long-awaited bill by a vote of 84 to 14. It will now go to the House of Representatives, where Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has pledged to move quickly and send it to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature. The bill is an amended version of the Honoring Our PACT Act, which passed Parliament earlier this year.
“Today is a historic, long-awaited day for our nation’s veterans,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech before the vote Thursday. “In just a few moments, the Senate will finally pass the PACT bill, the most significant expansion of healthcare benefits for our veterans in generations.”
Schumer continued, “The callousness of forcing veterans who got sick fighting for us from exposure to these toxins, having to fight for years in the VA to get the benefits they deserve — well, that will be over soon. praise God.”
Incineration pits were commonly used to burn waste, including everyday garbage, ammunition, hazardous materials, and chemical compounds at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan until about 2010.
Often operating on or near military bases, these huge outdoor burn pits released dangerous toxins into the air that could have caused short- and long-term health problems, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
A 2020 membership survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America advocacy group found that 86% of respondents had been exposed to burn pits or other toxins. The VA has denied about 70% of veterans’ cremation pit claims since 9/11, according to earlier testimony from Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican and senior GOP member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
The legislation has been years in the making and, once enacted, would equate to a major bipartisan victory.
“The Senate has a unique opportunity to make history today,” said Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Wednesday in the Senate ahead of a key procedural vote pushing the bill toward final passage. “This bill is not about Democrats versus Republicans. It’s not about political fuss. It’s about Americans standing up for those who have served and sacrificed for this country. … In fact, it is even more. It’s about righting a wrong that’s been ignored for too damn long.”
Passing the bill — dubbed Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 — will also mark a major achievement for Biden, who has campaigned for the legislation and is personally affected by the issue.
Biden believes cremation pits may have caused the brain tumor that killed his son Beau, a veteran of the Iraq War, in 2015. During his State of the Union address earlier this year, Biden called on Congress to pass that legislation.
“This isn’t just about our servicemen and women, the people who have served in our military, it’s also about their families,” Tester added. “Because when people go to war, it’s not just the soldier who does it, it’s everyone in his family. And this bill will address decades of inaction and failure by our government and extend VA healthcare entitlements to more than 3.5 million combat veterans who are exposed to burn pits.”
Among the bill’s priorities is that health care resources and benefits for ex-servicemen exposed to fire pits could be vastly expanded and provide insurance coverage for up to 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxins. It adds 23 conditions related to burn pits and toxic exposure, including hypertension, to the VA’s list of diseases that arose or worsened during military service, removing the burden on veterans of proving that their toxic exposure led to these conditions Has.
The bill also calls for investment in VA healthcare facilities, claims processing and the VA workforce, while bolstering federal research on toxic exposure, which was also a priority for Biden.
“We still have our work cut out as Congress, as a Senate, to make sure the promises that are made in this bill are promises that are kept,” Moran said in a speech Wednesday. “This bill was designed to fix a broken system cobbled together from patchwork quilts over decades.”
Veterans groups have long urged legislators to pass comprehensive cremation pit legislation because ex-servicemen have struggled to cope with the medical and subsequent financial consequences of exposure to toxic cremation pits.
Comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, an advocate for first responders and victims of 9/11, has also been a high-profile figure in efforts to draw attention to the problem and urge a legal solution.
“The bottom line is that our country exposed our own veterans to poison for years, and we knew about it, and we didn’t act with urgency and appropriateness,” Stewart said at a virtual roundtable with the House Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this year. “And because of that, we’ve lost men and women who served this country. They died from our inaction.”
The CNN Wire
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