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Senators announce bipartisan deal to help veterans exposed to burn pits

If it is passed, the PACT Act would expand health care eligibility for more than 3 million military veterans who were exposed to toxins.
Soldiers burn trash in a burn pit
Soldiers burn trash from the Jaghatu Combat Outpost in a pit in Jaghatu, Afghanistan, on Sept. 12, 2012.Lorenzo Tugnoli / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee announced a deal Wednesday that would help military veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits.

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said the agreement on the legislative package came after a year of intense negotiations with their House counterparts, the White House and veterans groups.

“This bipartisan legislation is the most comprehensive toxic exposure package the Senate has ever delivered to veterans in this country’s history," they said in a joint statement.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — or PACT Act — would expand VA health care eligibility to post-9/11 combat veterans. The senators said more than 3.5 million people were exposed to toxins while serving in the military.

If it is passed, the sweeping legislation would "improve claims processing to meet the immediate and future needs of every veteran it serves," bringing relief for those "living with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform," the senators said.

The legislation would also make it easier for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide used to clear vegetation in military operations, during the Vietnam War to get treatment.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that he strongly supported the bipartisan agreement, which was first reported by CNN, and that he would bring the measure up for a vote early next month.

“Our veterans need it, they deserve it, and we have a moral obligation to take care of those who have sacrificed so much for us,” Schumer said.

Open-air burn pits were common at U.S. military bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dangerous materials, from electronics and vehicles to human waste, were regularly doused in jet fuel and set ablaze, spewing toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air.

President Joe Biden, who has championed the PACT Act, said he believes his late son Beau Biden's brain cancer was linked to exposure to burn pits while he was deployed in Iraq in 2008.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the bipartisan agreement "an important step."

"President Biden believes that we have a sacred obligation to support veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors," Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

Passing the legislation, she said, "would be a welcome and long-awaited achievement for the veterans who have served us so well."

Comedian Jon Stewart, who has lobbied for the legislation on behalf of veterans groups and testified before Congress about the issue, is holding a rally in Washington later this month to urge Congress to pass the bill.

"Nothing is done til it’s done...but this is nice to see," Stewart tweeted after the deal was announced.

The bill was named after Heath Robinson, a sergeant with the Ohio National Guard who was deployed to Kosovo and Iraq. He died in 2020 from lung cancer, which he blamed on burn pit exposure.

“I don’t regret that service,” Robinson told The Columbus Dispatch in 2020. “I just wish that this could be different with the burn pits and people being held accountable.”