Senators announce bipartisan deal to aid veterans exposed to burn pits

Associated Press/Simon Klingert
In this April 28, 2011, photo, an Afghan National Army pickup truck passes parked U.S. armored military vehicles, as smoke rises from a fire in a trash burn pit at Forward Operating Base Caferetta Nawzad, Helmand province south of Kabul, Afghanistan.

The top members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee announced a deal on Wednesday to provide care to veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits.

Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022, which they hailed as “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 illness as a result of exposure during their time in uniform,” the senators said in a joint statement.

“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 deserved.”

The announcement comes after nearly a year of bipartisan negotiations between the Senate and House veterans’ affairs committees.

President Biden has prioritized helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, saying in mid-April that he would sign legislation on the topic immediately.

In a statement, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said passing the bill would be a “welcome and long-awaited achievement for the veterans who have served us so well.”

“President Biden believes that we have a sacred obligation to support veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors,” she said. “That’s why, as part of his first State of the Union address, he identified supporting veterans as a key pillar of his Unity Agenda and an issue that can unite the country — Republicans and Democrats.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he plans to bring the bill to the floor when the upper chamber returns from Memorial Day weekend.

Burn pits were used for open-air combustion of trash and other solid waste in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. It’s estimated that 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits and qualify for care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.  

The House and the Senate have separately passed legislation addressing toxic exposures. Most recently, the lower chamber passed legislation in early March that would establish a presumption of service connections for two dozen types of respiratory illnesses and cancers.  

Tester and Moran’s legislation is named for Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who deployed to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard. He died in 2020 from toxic exposure.

The legislation would expand the Department of Veterans Affairs health care eligibility to veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and create a framework to establish a presumption of service connection for 23 conditions related to toxic exposures.

The bill would also expand presumptions of connection related to Agent Orange, a mix of herbicides most notoriously used during the Vietnam War.

Further, it aims to strengthen research on toxic exposure and improve resources and training for toxic-exposed veterans. It also aims to improve claims processing for these veterans.

Tags Biden Charles Schumer Jerry Moran Jon Tester Karine Jean-Pierre

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