House passes bill expanding care for vets exposed to toxins
The House passed much-anticipated legislation Wednesday to expand benefits for veterans who suffer illnesses from toxic exposures during their military service.
The Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act largely aims to expand access to care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to 3.5 million veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and were exposed to toxic burn pits.
The measure passed by a bipartisan vote of 342-88, a much wider margin than when the lower chamber initially passed the bill in March. The bill gained much more Republican support, with 123 joining Democrats in advancing the measure.
The Senate later passed the bill in June by a vote of 84-14. The revised legislation heads back to the upper chamber, with technical drafting error corrections to the measure passed last month
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in floor remarks that Congress was “setting a new standard with the PACT Act.”
“We’re telling our veterans the burden of proof is not on you,” Takano said. “Because of your sacrifice to our country, this Congress and the American people are giving you the benefit of the doubt you have earned.”
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.
Burn pits were used in the post-9/11 era for open-air combustion of medical waste, human waste and anything else that needed to be disposed of. Over time, exposure to the toxins can lead to illnesses such as asthma, rhinitis and cancer, some of which can take years after exposure to develop.
In April, the VA added nine rare respiratory cancers that are presumed service-connected due to exposures, including five different lung cancers.
The Honoring Our PACT Act also creates a framework for the VA to establish presumptive service connections related to toxic exposures and adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the agency’s list of presumptive service connections.