Veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits during their time of service will soon have access to healthcare benefits after the Senate passed the PACT Act. The measure passed Tuesday with an overwhelming 86-11 vote. The bill will now go to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.
“I’ve never seen so many veterans with tears in their eyes and tears in their eyes of joy that I’ve seen in the last hour,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) said shortly after the bill’s passage. “I just got off the phone with the President of the United States and he said, ‘Thank you. This takes a big weight off of my shoulders.’ And he’s the guy who started this ball rolling.”
This is the same veterans healthcare bill that failed to pass last week. The Senate had overwhelmingly approved the PACT Act back in June, but a do-over was required to make a technical fix to the burn pits legislation.
That process derailed when Republicans had asked for three amendments to the bill to clarify spending purposes and to take out unrelated spending. A group of veterans and their families had been camping out at the Capitol since last week.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little,” comedian Jon Stewart, who was advocating for the bill, said Tuesday. “I hope we learn a lesson.”
An earlier version of the bill the House approved in March was expected to increase spending by more than $320 billion over 10 years, but senators trimmed some of the costs early on by phasing in certain benefit enhancements. They also added funds for staffing to help the VA keep up with the expected increase in demand for health care and an increase in disability claims.
Millions of veterans were exposed to burn pits used to dispose of things like chemicals, tires, plastics and other toxic waste. This includes hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War era veterans and survivors who stand to benefit from the bill.
“For decades, many of our nation’s veterans have endured a shameful reality,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said. “They went abroad to serve our country, bravely, got sick from toxic exposure in the line of duty, but came home and learned they didn’t qualify for the benefits they needed to treat their illnesses.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.