Toxic exposure legislation that could benefit millions of veterans appears poised to become law later this month with broad bipartisan support despite continued concerns from some conservative critics about the price tag for the sweeping measure.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted 86-12 in a procedural move to advance the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, setting up full chamber passage of the measure in coming days.
Thirty eight Republican lawmakers joined with all of the present Democratic senators to easily move ahead on the legislation, a significant sign of bipartisan support after the measure passed out of the House earlier this year largely along party lines.
“There’s absolutely no reason that this bill should be a Republican bill or a Democrat bill,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, during a rally with veterans advocates before the vote. “It should just be a bill passed by the United States Senate.”
As many as one in every five veterans living in America today could directly benefit from the new legislation.
It would establish a presumption of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers related to the smoke from burn pits, which were used extensively in those war zones to dispose of various types of waste, many of them toxic. The legislation would make it easier for those veterans to receive disability benefits and medical care for their illnesses.
The bill also provides for new benefits for veterans who faced radiation exposure during deployments throughout the Cold War, adds hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy to the list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure in the Vietnam War, and requires new medical exams for all veterans with toxic exposure claims.
That massive expansion of benefits also includes a substantial cost. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the House-passed version of the bill would total almost $322 billion over the next decade.
The Senate version is about $43 billion less expensive, because of a phased-in implementation of some benefits and presumed savings from community care programs to help shoulder the load of new medical tests and check-ups.
But it also includes billions extra for more VA staff — both in medical offices and benefits processing centers — and new health care facility leases.
Moran said he is confident those changes will win over enough of his fellow Republicans to get the measure through both chambers and to the president’s desk.
On Tuesday, the White House released a statement of support for the Senate version of the bill, calling it “one of the most significant and substantive expansions of benefits and services in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ history.”
Veterans advocates for years have said that poor monitoring of toxic smoke from overseas burn pits and inconsistent data from the Department of Defense have deprived tens of thousands of veterans from receiving disability benefits for rare cancers, respiratory illnesses and other ailments they believe are linked to their military service.
Veterans Affairs officials have made reforms in their toxic exposure processes in the last year, and last fall for the first time began awarding disability payouts for several illnesses believed linked to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said that work isn’t progressing fast enough, and lawmakers need to act now.
“If we’re going to send a message to the next generation of soldiers that we have out there, this has to pass,” he said. “This is the time to pay the full cost of our wars. Our nation’s veterans are counting on it. Their families are counting on it. We simply cannot fail.”
If senators can finalize their work on the measure in coming days — several still want to offer amendments to further refine the bill — the legislation could be approved by the House before the end of the month and be signed into law by President Joe Biden before the July 4 holiday.
But the actual impact of the new bill will take some time. While the bill includes provisions to speed up delivery of new payouts and medical care to older and infirm veterans right away, others may have to wait several years before their window of eligibility begins.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.