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Tester announces bipartisan deal on expanded coverage for toxic-exposed veterans

Burn pit
Posted at 11:12 AM, May 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-18 13:12:58-04

HELENA — Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Ranking Member Jerry Moran, R-Kan., announced a bipartisan agreement on Tuesday for comprehensive legislation to address the health care needs of toxic-exposed veterans. The new bill will include expanded coverage for post-9/11 combat veterans that were exposed to burn pits, and expand the list of countries for presumptive Agent Orange exposure.

Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 is an amended version of the Honoring Our PACT Act which passed the House earlier this year.

The final text of the legislation is still being worked out, but will include provisions for:

  • Expand VA health care eligibility to Post-9/11 combat veterans, which includes more than 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans;
  • Create a framework for the establishment of future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure;
  • Add 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to VA’s list of service presumptions, including hypertension;
  • Expand presumptions related to Agent Orange exposure; Includes Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll as locations for Agent Orange exposure;
  • Strengthen federal research on toxic exposure;
  • Improve VA’s resources and training for toxic-exposed veterans

If the legislation passes the House with the amendments, it will mark a long-sought bipartisan victory. Tester and Moran have been pushing for expanded coverage for toxic-exposed veterans, working with veterans groups and federal agencies to find a path forward.

The senators released the following statement regarding the announcement:

“This bipartisan legislation is the most comprehensive toxic exposure package the Senate has ever delivered to veterans in this country’s history. For far too long, our nation’s veterans have been living with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform. Today, we’re taking necessary steps to right this wrong with our proposal that’ll provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve. In addition to providing historic relief to all generations of toxic-exposed veterans, this legislation will improve claims processing to meet the immediate and future needs of every veteran it serves. Together, we will continue working until Congress delivers on its commitment to passing long-lasting solutions and comprehensive reforms for those who served our country.”

The proposed legislation will also be a victory for the Biden administration should it pass. At the president’s State of the Union address in March, he specifically called upon Congress to address the needs of veterans who were exposed to burn pits.

“One of those soldiers was my son Major Beau Biden. We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer, or the diseases of so many of our troops. But I’m committed to finding out everything we can,” said Biden during the State of the Union.

Burn pits in Iraq
U.S. Marines with 1st Marine Logistics Group (1st MLG) burn black water aboard Taqaddum, Iraq September 22, 2008. Brig. Gen. Robert R. Ruark, Commanding General, 1st MLG, watched the event because this was the last time burning this specific black water pit before filling it in with sand. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jason W. Fudge\RELEASED)

Opponents of expanding VA coverage for toxic exposure in the past have pointed to the potential costs associated with such legislation. In recent years the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has recognized that nearly 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans suffered prolonged and pervasive exposure to burn pits and other toxic chemicals they could not avoid. Burn pits were how the military disposed of waste — including plastics — and have been linked to cancer, respiratory illnesses and other diseases.