WASHINGTON — Help is on the way for hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from 9/11-like toxic exposure illnesses after the U.S. Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed the most significant expansion of the Veterans Administration in modern times.
According to the VA, some 3.5 million American veterans were exposed to air from poisonous burn pits in deployments overseas since the nation went to war in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Growing numbers have gotten sick or died from that exposure, having breathed in smoke all-too-similar to the toxic clouds surrounding the devastated World Trade Center. The smoke came from massive pits that the military used to burn plastics, medical waste, ammunition and anything else, even setting it aflame with jet fuel, much like the accelerant that burned the twin towers.
But around three-quarters of ill service members and veterans who submitted claims were denied by the VA because toxic exposures were not covered.
The bill, named the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act after a soldier who died from his exposure, would guarantee health benefits without red tape to any veteran suffering from various illnesses, including certain cancers and breathing disorders.
The bill also improves care for some Vietnam veterans and people who served at nuclear sites. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the total cost, including existing funding that is shifted by the legislation, will cost some $280 billion over 10 years.
The centerpiece of the measure focuses on the burn pits, written by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., modeled on 9/11 legislation.
She said passing the bill was a matter of living up to its title — honoring the pact the nation makes to care for the people who fight its wars.
“Our service members and their families give everything for our country. And as a nation we promise to care for them when they come home,” Gillibrand said. “At last, we are honoring that promise and paying the price we owe them for our freedoms, our values, and our safety.”
The bill will need to be approved by the House, but it is expected to be non-controversial and will likely reach President Joe Biden’s desk by Independence Day.
The Senate’s changes to the bill, negotiated by Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Kansas GOP Sen. Jerry Moran, slowed the implementation but won strong Republican backing.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., described the bill as “the greatest advance in veterans’ health care in decades.” He said scores of America’s veterans went off to serve their country in perfect health only to come back and get sick from toxic exposure, and, when they applied for disability benefits, oftentimes found out they didn’t qualify.
“It’s a confounding indignity for our nation’s heroes to sacrifice everything for our country only to come home, get sick and discover the VA is not there for them,” Schumer said.
Republicans had been concerned the VA would not be able to deal with the surge in ill veterans, leading to chaos and disappointment. But Moran said the changes addressed those concerns, and Congress owes it to veterans to care for them, regardless of the price tag.
“There’s no doubt that the cost of taking care of our veterans is high, but the truth is, freedom is not free. We say that, but this is evidence that we believe that,” said Moran on the Senate floor.
“There’s always a cost of war. It’s always high. It’s always dramatic. It’s always something that costs people their lives,” Moran said. “The cost of war is not fully paid when the war is over. We are now on the verge of honoring that commitment to Americans, veterans and their families.”