Senate approves burn exposure bill, in one of the most significant expansions for veterans benefits to date

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WASHINGTON – After years of activism and a brief fuss over budget details, the Senate passed the PACT Act, a bill that provides easier access to medical care for veterans exposed to toxic burns.

The Senate passed the bill by 86-11 votes on Tuesday and sent it to President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign the bill. Republicans cast all 11 votes against the bill.

“This Senate will go through the most significant expansion of health benefits for veterans in generations,” said Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, 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 fire pits and what does the bill do?

According to the Department of Defense, fire pits — outdoor waste sites where military waste is disposed of through incineration — have exposed an estimated 3.5 million veterans to toxic chemicals that can lead to respiratory diseases or various cancers.

Veterans sick from burn exposure are often denied disability benefits and medical care due to a lack of concrete evidence linking burns directly to illness.

More: Senate Passes PACT Act, Last Effort in Years of Struggle to Help Veterans Exposed to Toxic Burns

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.

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With that direct link, the bill will provide much easier access to health care and disability benefits for the estimated 3.5 million exposed veterans who previously had to argue with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs about their illness.

An Afghan National Army pickup truck passes parked U.S. armored military vehicles as smoke rises from a fire in a waste incineration pit at Forward Operating Base Caferetta Nawzad, Helmand Province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, April 28, 2011.

What do people say?

  • In remarks on the House floor, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, “Toxic exposure is a cost of war, and we must treat it as such. This is not a question of dollars – it is a question of values.” ,”

  • A statement released by House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., mocked the charges of the bills, saying the bill had a “budget gimmick” and was another form of “reckless spending.” McCarthy was one of 88 votes against the bill in the House.

  • sen. Sherrod Brown D-Ohio., told USA Today “It’s a huge victory for veterans. One of the most important things we’ve ever done for vets.”

  • On the Senate floor on Tuesday afternoon, Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kan., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, pleaded with his colleagues to “deliver the most comprehensive package for toxic exposure to veterans in our nation’s history.

  • Jon Stewart, comedian and former “Daily Show” host, is one of the bill’s most vocal supporters. Speaking in front of the steps of the Capitol on Monday, Stewart said, “We are all indebted to (veterans). And it’s time we started paying it off.”

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Veterans, military relatives and advocates are joined by activist Jon Stewart who is calling on Senate Republicans to change their vote on a bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxins during their military service at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Aug. 1, 2021.

Veterans, military relatives and advocates are joined by activist Jon Stewart who is calling on Senate Republicans to change their vote on a bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxins during their military service at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Aug. 1, 2021.

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 codified cancers. In his State of the Union address, he said alluded to the possible connection between fire pits and the death of his son.

“I’m not sure if the fire pit he lived near – that his hooch was nearby in Iraq and earlier in Kosovo – is the cause of his brain cancer and the illness of so many other troops.”

The bill has been long anticipated by veterans and activists who have been pushing for some semblance of federal action for burn victims. While research is still underway to establish a direct correlation between burns and illness, activists and Biden have both said action is needed now rather than waiting.

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During a visit to a Veterans Affairs clinic in Fort Worth, Texas, in March, Biden emphasized the importance of some form of legislation on fire pits.

U.S. President Joe Biden (2nd right) walks to the grave of his son Beau after attending Mass at Saint Joseph at Brandywine Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware, on May 30, 2022.

U.S. President Joe Biden (2nd right) walks to the grave of his son Beau after attending Mass at Saint Joseph at Brandywine Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware, on May 30, 2022.

“If somehow the evidence doesn’t provide a clear answer, the decision we prefer is to care for our veterans as we continue to learn — not wait,” he said. “We’re not waiting.”

Procedural issues

  • The bill was originally supposed to be signed before the July 4 Congress, but ran into a procedural problem that delayed its passage.

  • The Senate introduced a tax provision into the bill when the Constitution says tax provisions must come from the House, meaning the bill was technically unconstitutional at the time.

  • Both chambers blamed each other for not noticing the hiccups and letting it pass, but the House later resolved the issue and sent the bill back to the Senate.

  • In June, the bill was passed by the Senate by an overwhelming majority of 84-14 votes. The bill, largely unchanged, was subsequently blocked by 41 Republican senators for what they believed to be a budgeting problem between mandatory and discretionary spending.

  • sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., introduced an amendment that he said would eliminate a “budget gimmick” for what he believes would be an “unrelated spending wave.” Toomey said delaying the bill and going back and forth was worth putting the Democrats in the spotlight. The amendment failed in a 47-48 vote when 60 votes were needed.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate approves toxic burn pit law, expanding benefits for veterans

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