WASHINGTON — Members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee announced Wednesday that they have reached an agreement that would expand health care and benefits eligibility for all veterans exposed to fireplaces and other toxins.
The senses. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the committee, and Jerry Moran of Kansas, the ranked Republican on the committee, introduced Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson honoring our Promise to Combat Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, law of 2022. Senators called the legislation landmark and said the bill would provide long-awaited health care services and benefits to all veterans exposed to toxins.
“For far too long, our nation’s veterans have lived with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform,” Tester and Moran said in a joint statement. “Today, we are taking the necessary steps to right that wrong with our proposal that will provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve. »
The PACT Act aims to provide easy access to health care and benefits for veterans who served near outdoor burning fireplaces, which were used throughout the 1990s and after the 9/11 wars for burning garbage, jet fuel and other materials. Veterans diagnosed with cancer, respiratory problems and lung disease at a young age have blamed exposure to toxic fumes, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has argued for years that there is not enough evidence to support their claims.
The bill would also improve the VA workforce, health care facilities and claims processing to expedite efforts to meet the needs of veterans. Additionally, the bill would expand health care eligibility for veterans after 9/11 and add 23 conditions related to burning fireplaces and other toxic exposures to the VA’s list of presumptions of service. It will also expand presumptions related to Agent Orange exposure to include Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll, strengthen federal research on toxic exposure, and enhance resources and AV training.
Bill is named after Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease and lung cancer after serving in the Army National Guard in Kosovo and Iraq, where he had prolonged exposure to outbreaks of burn. He died in 2020.
In March, senators began negotiating a sweeping measure to expand health care and benefits eligibility for millions of veterans exposed to fireplaces and other toxins. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee discussed the PACT Act, which passed the House in early March but conflicted with a Senate strategy to address toxic exposure health care.
House lawmakers proposed a major reform bill, but senators opted for a more incremental approach to the issue. In February, the Senate passed the Burn Pit Veterans Health Care Act, which would extend health care to veterans but does not address other benefits. The bill’s sponsors insisted the measure is just the first step in a three-phase approach that would gradually add more benefits.
The House PACT Act would increase spending by about $318 billion over the next decade, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. The original Senate bill would cost about $1 billion.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough testified in March about two changes his department wants to make to the bill before it passes. The first is to change a section that he says would inadvertently delay the presumptive terms approval process. When a condition is on the presumptive list, it means the government recognizes that a veteran’s military service is the cause of the medical condition and reduces the amount of evidence a veteran has to provide to receive benefits.
The PACT Act could create a commission to oversee VA efforts to add presumptive conditions. Although the idea is meant to speed up the process, McDonough said he thinks it could do the opposite.
“I understand what they’re trying to do, which is to get us moving faster, but I think the tools they’re using to get us to do that would actually slow us down,” he said. declared.
McDonough also wanted Congress to add a provision to the bill that would authorize 31 standby leases for VA medical facilities nationwide. By law, the VA must receive legislative approval to lease major medical facilities, but Congress has not authorized them on a regular basis.
“Facility space is critical to caring for veterans, and the PACT Act will bring millions more to our care,” McDonough said. “Yet out of 31 leases from major medical facilities, 21 have been on hold for years. We urge you to endorse them so that we can truly meet the needs of veterans. »
In April, the veterans organization Disabled American Veterans held a press conference in Kentucky to pressure lawmakers to pass the PACT Act and for veterans and their families to share stories about how whose toxic exposures have affected them. Comedian Jon Stewart was not there in person but spoke at the event via Zoom.
“It’s time we recognized toxic wounds or wounds, whether they are [Camp] Lejeune, whether it’s in Iraq and Afghanistan, or whether it’s Vietnam, or whether it’s the Persian Gulf, war exposes soldiers to dangerous and deadly substances,” Stewart said. “And these substances may not show up for years. A toxic wound is a wound that goes away. It’s a [improvised explosive device] that triggers in your body seven years later, 10 years later.
DAV National Commander Andy Marshall said the veterans organization is pleased the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has reached agreement on the PACT Act and calls on all senators to support the legislation.
“DAV and a coalition of veterans’ organizations have worked for years to develop and pass comprehensive military toxics exposure legislation to ensure that every generation of veterans exposed to burning fireplaces and d ‘Other battlefield toxins receive the medical care and disability benefits they’ve earned,’ Marshall said in a prepared statement. “This groundbreaking announcement is a major step toward moving the PACT Act through Congress and onto the President’s desk for signature.”
Stewart will be in Washington, D.C., and will join veteran service organizations in hosting a Pass the PACT Act rally on May 29 at RFK Fairgrounds Stage at 1 p.m.