HELENA - Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont) and Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-Kan) held a press conference Thursday detailing new comprehensive legislation to address the health care needs of toxic-exposed veterans.
Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 is an amended version of the Honoring Our PACT Act which passed the House earlier this year. It aims to expand coverage for post-9/11 combat veterans exposed to burn pits, expand the list of countries for presumptive Agent Orange exposure and increase funding for the VA to research toxic exposure.
The legislation will also create a framework for the VA to address future toxic exposure without intervention from Congress.
"Toxic exposure has been around since World War I with mustard gas," noted Tester. "This bill, it adds a structure by which the VA can deal with toxic exposure moving forward so it won't have to have an act of Congress is the first thing. Secondly, it adds capacity for the VA to deal with these toxic exposures. Whether it's in manpower or staffing, record keeping, whatever it might be."
According to data from the VA, approximately 66,000 Montana veterans could have been exposed to toxic substances during their service.
Moran told the press Thursday this legislation is a significant success that members of Congress can take pride in.
“This is an example of Republicans and Democrats coming together to make sure our veterans those that served, in this case, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan and those that served in Vietnam, those that were exposed to burn pits and agent orange will finally have a path through Veterans Affairs to receive benefits and health care for the damages they encountered,” said Moran.
Provisions in the bill include:
- Expand VA health care eligibility to Post-9/11 combat veterans, which includes more than 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans;
- Create a framework for the establishment of future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure;
- Add 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to VA’s list of service presumptions, including hypertension;
- Expand presumptions related to Agent Orange exposure; Includes Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll as locations for Agent Orange exposure;
- Strengthen federal research on toxic exposure;
- Improve VA’s resources and training for toxic-exposed veterans
Opponents of expanding VA coverage for toxic exposure in the past have pointed to the potential costs associated with such legislation.
The final estimated cost of the bill has not been determined yet, yet will likely be in the billions of dollars. Tester said while it will likely have a large price tag, the United States owes it to its veterans.
“While the cost of doing this is significant, right now our veterans are the only ones paying that cost, and they can’t wait any longer,” said Tester.
In recent years the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has recognized that nearly 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans suffered prolonged and pervasive exposure to burn pits and other toxic chemicals they could not avoid. Burn pits were how the military disposed of waste — including plastics — and have been linked to cancer, respiratory illnesses and other diseases.
Tester also told MTN News he anticipates the Senate will take up the bill once they return from break in June. He added the Senate will be the largest hurdle for the legislation to make it to the President’s desk but is pretty confident the bill has enough bipartisan support to get the needed votes.