The Hill: Senate passes bill expanding care for veterans exposed to toxins

by Jordan Williams

The Senate on Thursday voted 84-14 to pass legislation expanding benefits for veterans suffering health effects from toxic exposures during their military service.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022, among other things, expands the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care eligibility to veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The measure now heads back to the House, where it passed by a vote of 256-174 in March, with 34 Republicans joining Democrats to advance the measure. Thursday’s legislation includes several changes from the House version.

Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) – the top members on the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee – unveiled the bipartisan legislation in mid-May after a year of negotiations.

The bill is named for Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who deployed to Iraq and Kosovo with the Ohio National Guard. He died in 2020 of cancer that he developed as a result to exposure to burn pits during his deployment.

Servicemembers have been exposed to toxins throughout history, though Thursday’s legislation is largely aimed at helping veterans who were exposed to burn pits in the post-9/11 era.

Burn pits were open areas of land used for combustion of trash and other waste like chemicals, human waste, munitions and food waste.

Exposures to the resulting chemicals has been found to cause health issues ranging from asthma, autoimmune disorders and lung cancers, some of which can take years after exposure to develop.

In remarks on the Senate floor, Tester said that passing the bill was “righting a wrong that has been ignored for just way too damn long.”

“Generations after generations of Americans have gone to war, backed by a promise that we made to them when they signed up that we would care for them when they got home,” Tester said.

“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in the case of toxic exposure. We failed them,” he added.

In addition to expanding VA care eligibility to post-9/11 veterans, the bill creates a framework for the VA to establish presumptive service connections related to toxic exposures. It also adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the agency’s list of presumptive service connections.

The legislation also expands presumptions related to Agent Orange – used largely during the Vietnam War – to veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Guam, among other places.

The bill further strengthens federal research on toxic exposures and improves the VA’s resources and training for toxic-exposed veterans.