Billings Gazette: Veterans’ health care bill passes Senate

by Tom Lutey

Veterans suffering from exposure to burn pits and other toxic sources are closer to health coverage Tuesday following Senate passage of the Honoring our PACT Act, a bill Republicans surprisingly walked away from a week earlier.

Veterans had camped outside the Capitol for several days following the bill’s unexpected rejection a week ago. They had gathered July 27 for the bill’s expected passage. Tuesday, the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 passed 86 to 11. Robinson was in the Ohio National Guard when he served in Iraq and Kosovo. He died on 2020 from illnesses stemming from toxic exposure.

The Department of Defense estimates that 3.5 million combat veterans were exposed to toxic trash fires and other sources of toxic emissions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Southwest Asia over the past 20 years. Roughly half of those veterans don’t have health coverage.

“For hundreds of thousands of veterans of all generations, for our all-volunteer military, this bill puts us on a path to finally paying the cost of war,” said Sen. Jon Tester after the vote. The Montana Democrat, chairman of the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee had first introduced the comprehensive bill in early 2021, but it wasn’t until seven months ago when the committee’s ranking member, Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas, agreed to partner on getting the bill passed, that the legislation stood a chance. Republicans had previously balked at the bill’s nearly $300 billion price, which was reduced through the process.

Billings veterans who met with Tester in May talked about stroke-like paralysis and burning skin sensation stemming from exposure to pits used by the military to burn waste, some of which emits toxic fumes. The bill also allows residents of Camp Lejeune to seek reparations for exposure to toxic water during a 30-year period from 1950 to 1980. Several toxic exposure deaths are associated with the Marine Corps base in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Vietnam War veterans exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange, also gain coverage under the bill.

Last week after earlier votes with strong, bipartisan support, the COST Act failed to muster the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. A lobbying effort against the bill by Sen. Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, had flipped the outcome. Toomey objected to bill language that guaranteed health care would be covered for 10 years. The lawmaker wanted Congress to vote on the funding annually.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines was among the Republicans who sided with Toomey. A video of Daines and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz fist-bumping after the July 27 vote went viral. The moment was referenced in monologue of Late Show host Stephen Colbert on Monday.

Tuesday, Daines voted for the PACT Act without the amendment requested by Toomey, or any concession concerning the climate bill.

“Today, I was glad to vote for the ‘PACT Act’ to deliver disability and health benefits earned by Montana veterans suffering from toxic exposure that occurred during their military service,” Daines said in a press release. “In recent days, I worked to ensure the VA is held accountable for meeting the needs of these veterans while also preventing big spenders in Washington from funding unrelated programs. While I’m disappointed these improvements did not pass, the ‘PACT Act’ passed with my full support. I look forward to it becoming law in the very near future.”

President Joe Biden will now receive the bill for signing. Biden has long supported health coverage for veterans exposed to burn pits. He has suggested that toxic exposure was a cause of the cancer the killed his son Beau, a veteran.

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