BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — President Biden is expected to sign legislation soon to benefit veterans impacted by burn pits.
The Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act passed with a vote of 86-11 in the Senate on Tuesday.
The PACT Act will expand health care benefits to an estimated 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It adds conditions related to burn pit and toxic exposure, including hypertension, to the Department of Veterans Affair’s list of illnesses.
The passage ended a standoff after Senate Republicans unexpectedly blocked the bill last week during a procedural vote. Twenty-five Republicans who initially voted to advance the bill in June changed their votes last week. Some Republicans claimed the bill created a “budgetary gimmick” by moving $400 billion spent by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to mandatory spending.
The bill also removes the burden of proof from veterans seeking care for exposure-related conditions.
Alabama Senators Tommy Tuberville and Richard Shelby were among the 11 Republicans who voted against the passage of the bill.
Burn pits are holes soldiers use to burn human and trash waste.
US Army veteran Jay Gibbs tells CBS 42 News just the cloud of smoke alone is toxic for soldiers on the field. He says they tried to protect themselves by covering their faces with masks, but there was still no way to escape toxic chemicals.
“At the time, I didn’t think anything about it. Because when a sand storm would come, I would be covered in it but knowing the difference of what was in that sand storm or what was in that smoke was a big difference,” Gibbs said.
Those toxic chemicals bring long-term health conditions, including hypertension, high blood pressure, and several cancers.
Gibbs, who now serves as the executive director of Three Hots and A Cot Veteran Center, says several veterans at the center have conditions from toxic burn pits, including him.
At 26, he says his breathing was affected by the toxic chemicals from burn pits.
“I wear a c-pap machine,” Gibbs said. “I wheeze a lot, and I catch myself a lot of times out here, and I think to myself, ‘man, is that ok?'”
US Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough released this statement on the passage:
“Veterans who were exposed to toxic fumes while fighting for our country are American heroes, and they deserve world-class care and benefits for their selfless service. The bipartisan PACT Act will help VA deliver for those Veterans — and their survivors — by empowering us to presumptively provide care and benefits to Vets suffering from more than 20 toxic exposure-related conditions. To those Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors: you can apply for PACT Act benefits by filing a claim at VA, and you can learn more about the PACT Act at VA.gov/PACT or by calling us at 1-800-MyVA411. We’ll be communicating with you every step of the way to make sure that you and your loved ones get the benefits you’ve earned. We couldn’t be more grateful to President Biden, who made this day possible by fighting like hell for our nation’s Veterans. Once the President signs this bill into law, we at VA will implement it quickly and effectively, delivering the care these Veterans need and the benefits they deserve.”
Others locally and nationally are also responding to the bill’s passing.
“To our veterans who have been exposed to toxic chemicals from burn pits, we have your back,” US Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said.
“It’s big on our hearts; it lets us know that every little thing and it shows that people still care,” Gibbs said.
Senator Tuberville released a statement on Twitter regarding his “No” vote: “Ensuring veterans have access to quality care is a priority of mine. Unfortunately, I do not believe the Pact Act will enable the VA to efficiently deliver care and benefits to veterans suffering from illnesses related to toxic exposure. We can do better.”
Senator Shelby, who has stated he will not seek another term, also tweeted out a statement regarding his vote against the bill: “Throughout my career, I’ve remained a strong advocate for our veterans. However, the PACT Act would reclassify nearly $400 billion in VA funding, allowing Dems to instead spend that on their liberal wish list. I want to support the PACT Act, but this budget gimmick must be fixed.”