The U.S. Senate on Aug. 2 passed a bill to expand healthcare coverage that would benefit veterans who had been exposed to military toxic burn pits.
The vote to approve the PACT Act was 86–11.
The bill now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk. In a statement, Biden called the bill’s passage the “biggest expansion of benefits for service-connected health issues in 30 years and the largest single bill ever to comprehensively address exposure to burn pits.”
Until the mid-2010s, the U.S. military used burn pits to dispose of various waste on foreign bases, exposing U.S. service members to fumes that resulted from the burning of various substances, from chemical waste, cans, rubber, plastics, as well as ammunitions and human waste.
“For the millions of veterans who may have been exposed to harmful toxins, this bill means quicker access to health care services and other benefits,” Biden said. “This could be the difference between life and death for many suffering from toxic-related illnesses.
“For the spouse or child of a servicemember who died from toxic exposure, struggling to put their lives back together, this bill will be a lifeline. It means a monthly stipend for a surviving spouse and kids, and access to tuition benefits to help cover the cost of college. It means access to life insurance, home loan assistance, and help with health care,” he added.
The legislation directs the VA to presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.
Roughly 70 percent of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the Veterans Affairs (VA) due to lack of evidence, scientific data, and information from the Department of Defense.
The bill also adds hypertension—high blood pressure—as a presumptive disease associated with Agent Orange exposure. This provision could benefit hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War-era veterans and survivors.
The Senate had approved the legislation back in June in an 84–14 vote that had the support of all 50 Democrats and 34 Republicans. However, that version of the bill needed a do-over for a technical fix that the House quickly corrected.
When the bill was sent back to the Senate for final passage last week, its final approval was expected to be a routine vote. But 25 Senate Republicans made an abrupt and late attempt to change a separate aspect of the bill and blocked a procedural vote to advance the corrected version of the bill. The procedural vote needed the support of 60 senators in the 100-member chamber. Because of Republican opposition, it was four votes short.
The abrupt change came just hours after Democrats announced a deal within their caucus on an unrelated climate and tax bill that would not require bipartisan support.
A group of veterans and their families have been camping out at the Capitol since the vote that had temporarily blocked the bill.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was one of 41 Republicans who voted against the corrected version of the PACT bill. He told TMZ in an interview: “What the dispute is about is, the Democrats played a budgetary trick, which is, they took $400 billion in discretionary spending and they shifted it to mandatory.”
He added: “The reason they did that is, they want to spend $400 billion more discretionary funds on completely unrelated matters. So, it’s just part of the out-of-control spending from the left.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said in a statement on July 26 that the legislation “includes a budget gimmick that would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory spending category.”
“This provision is completely unnecessary to achieve the PACT Act’s stated goal of expanding health care and other benefits for veterans,” he added. “However, it would enable an additional $400 billion in future discretionary spending completely unrelated to veterans. By failing to remove this gimmick, Congress would effectively be using an important veterans care bill to hide a massive, unrelated spending binge.”
Toomey said on Aug. 1: “The oldest trick in Washington is to craft a bill to help vulnerable Americans, and then sneak in an unrelated provision that would never pass on its own. That’s exactly what Democrats are doing with the PACT Act.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Aug. 2 that he had reached a deal with Toomey to hold a vote on an amendment that would change how money was allocated within the legislation, clearing the way for a final vote on passage in the evening. Toomey’s amendment was defeated before the Senate voted 86–11 to approve the bill.
Biden said that he looks forward to signing the bill into law.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.