Senate Greenlights Health Care Bill for Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate, in a broadly bipartisan 86-11 vote on Tuesday night, approved a measure to provide health care and benefits for millions of veterans injured by exposure to toxins, from Agent Orange in Vietnam to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a result of the passage of the PACT Act, veterans will no longer be forced to prove their illnesses were caused by toxic exposures suffered during their military service in order to receive VA medical coverage.
The changes authorized by the vote are considered the largest expansion of care in VA history, and are expected to cost roughly $280 billion over a decade.
The bill was passed by the House in a vote of 342-88 last month.
The Senate had previously passed the Act by an 84-14 vote in June, but a technical error required another vote last week, for which 42 Republicans switched sides.
That caused an uproar among Democrats, advocacy groups and the comedian Jon Stewart, all of whom loudly and repeatedly accused Republicans of selling veterans out.
After the bill was blocked, veterans and advocates filed in front of the Capitol to protest against the decision.
Some Democrats also contended the Republican change of heart over the veteran’s health bill was an expression of sour grapes after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., reached an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on a separate reconciliation bill.
But the Republicans said their opposition was related to concerns over which portion of the federal budget would pay for $280 billion worth of funds for veteran health programs.
It was only after five days of an around-the-clock “fire watch” on the Capitol steps by veterans, many of whom suffer from burn pit injuries from their service, that the GOP lawmakers relented and allowed the legislation to move forward.
Burn pits are used to burn chemicals, medical and human waste, and other items like treated wood, often by using benzene-based jet fuel propellant, which is toxic to individuals exposed to the smoke.
Nearly 3.5 million service members were exposed to open burn pits used for waste disposal during military deployments in Southwest Asia since 1990, based on estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense.
The bill would expand the enhanced health coverage time period offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs from five years to 10 years for veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It would also improve the claims processing procedure to expedite the approval process for veterans who file an injury claim for the exposure.
On Tuesday evening, veterans in the Senate gallery waited patiently for the final congressional votes on the measure, as advocates outside of the Capitol tuned in for word of a final decision.
“This is a wonderful moment,” said Schumer, after the bill passed.
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