Senate passes burn pit law to expand health care for veterans

On Tuesday evening, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the PACT Act, a bill to extend health care benefits to veterans who have developed illnesses due to their exposure to combustion chambers during military service. The vote of 86 to 11 was received to cheers from the Senate gallery.

The bill is now heading to President Biden’s desk, and the White House says he is eager to sign it. The vote came after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Tuesday afternoon that he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had reached an agreement.

“It’s a wonderful time, especially for all the people who made this happen and are watching it,” Schumer said after the vote. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Watching the final vote from the Senate gallery on Tuesday evening, the comedian Jon Stewart, a staunch supporter of the bill and veterans, could be seen with tears in his eyes. Stewart has been on Capitol Hill to rally support for the bill and pressure senators to pass it.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little,” he said after the vote. “I hope we learn a lesson.”

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal had a message for the Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday night: “I have a message for the VA: You better get it right. You better deliver. These veterans have already waited too long. .”

Mr. Biden said after the vote that he looked forward to signing the bill “so that veterans, their families and caregivers impacted by toxic exposures finally get the benefits and comprehensive health care they have earned and deserved”.

The legislation will expand benefits for approximately 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic burning stoves during the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The bill will remove the burden of proof from veterans seeking care for conditions related to exposure to fire pits by assuming that a number of conditions, including several cancers, are related to the exposure.

Burn pits are holes in the ground that the US military dug near bases in countries that had limited infrastructure where troops dumped trash and burned it to get rid of it.

Congressional Veterans Burning Pit
Veterans, military family members and advocates gather outside the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, to support a bill that improves health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans at risk to toxic combustion sources.

Mariam Zuhaib / AP

The original invoice passed the House and Senate in June, but due to a language problem, he had to return to the House and Senate before he could be sent to President Biden’s office. The legislation passed the House again but failed to get past a procedural vote in the Senate last week. Twenty-five Republican senators who voted for the bill in June voted against moving the bill forward last week, citing an objection to how the legislation is being paid for.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has since June opposed a provision in the wording of the legislation that would shift $400 billion of pre-existing discretionary spending for veterans to mandatory spending. A measure financed by mandatory expenditures does not generally have to be approved each year, unlike discretionary expenditures. Toomey argues that this new designation frees up funds that could be used for items unrelated to veterans.

Mr Biden blamed the burns for the health issues of his late son, Beau Biden, who died of a brain tumor in 2015. In a 2019 speech to the Service Employees International Union, then-candidate Biden said that in due to “his son’s exposure to combustion fireplaces, in my opinion, I can’t prove it yet, he came back with the fourth stage glioblastoma.”

— Melissa Quinn contributed to this report.

Leave a Comment