Sponsored by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and California Rep. Raul Ruiz, the bill aims to treat veterans' exposure to burn pits as a presumptive condition for any veteran of war.
According to the Military Times, as many as 3.5 million veterans could be eligible for benefits under the legislation. Under the bill, medical conditions associated with exposure to burn pits including cancers, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other rare diseases will be covered.
According to The New York Times, service members have been exposed to more than 250 burn pits used to dispose of trash while deployed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Veterans believe cancers, lung diseases, and other respiratory illnesses can be connected to their exposure.
While the issue has recently gained national attention, advocates have been demanding legislation to protect veterans for years. Many remained hopeful the act would pass but on Wednesday Republican officials—who claim they care about veterans—blocked it.
While the House passed the PACT Act earlier this month, Republican senators blocked the bill's passage Wednesday. While all Democrats voted for the Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act, only eight Republican senators voted in favor. As a result, the bill fell short of the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster in the Senate.
According to The Guardian, 25 Republican senators who previously supported the measure declined to move it forward Wednesday.
CNN reported that some Republicans allegedly no longer backed the measure because Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, was blocking votes on amendments Republicans wanted.
If passed, the bill would have expanded health care coverage for more than 3 million veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and Vietnam-era veterans exposed to the deadly herbicide Agent Orange.
“My concern about this bill has nothing to do with the purpose of the bill,” Sen. Pat Toomey, who didn’t support the bill, said. He claimed that an additional $400 billion, not related to veterans, would be spent. “This budgetary gimmick is so unrelated to the actual veterans issue that has to do with burn pits, that it’s not even in the House version of this bill.”
“We’ve been spending money like no one’s ever imagined,” Toomey added. “I would stress there’s a very easy path to a very big vote in favor of this bill [but] let’s fix this problem.”
The bill’s lack of support created controversy in the Senate, with some elected officials accusing others of not supporting the country’s heroes.
“If you have the guts to send somebody to war, then you better have the guts to take care of them when they get home,” Sen. Jon Tester said. ‘If we don’t take care of our veterans when they come home, they’re going to say, ‘Why should I ever sign the dotted line. Because the promises I made and the promises the country made, only half that deal is being respected.’”
The House passed the PACT Act by a 342-88 vote on July 13, about a month after the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 84-14. The Senate retook the bill Wednesday due to some minor changes, The Hill reported.
According to The Hill, the updated legislation adds 23 toxic and burn pit exposure conditions to the Department of Veterans Affairs database, while expanding care for post-9/11 veterans who were exposed to the burn pits.
According to PBS News, the bill contains two major components, the first being extending the grace period by which military veterans serving near burn pits can get medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs (from five years to 10) and the second being that the VA is to presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure.
At this time more than 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, according to scientific data and information from the Defense Department, PBS reported.
“Think of the injustice of that,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said regarding the denial rate.
Prior to Toomey’s urging members to vote against it, the bill seemed to be receiving substantial bipartisan support.
Responding to the Senate vote and Toomey’s comments, Stewart criticized Senate Republicans for their lack of humanity.
In a tweet he said:
“Congratulations @SenToomey You successfully used the Byzantine Senate rules to keep sick veterans suffering!!!! Kudos! I’m sure you’ll celebrate by kicking a dog or punching a baby…or whatever terrible people do for fun!!!!!” He later added, “PS F— the R caucus and their empty promise to our veterans.”
He also joined advocates during a press conference Thursday to express his anger.
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