Military veterans and advocates celebrated the passage of a bill Tuesday in the U.S. Senate that involves an unprecedented expansion of health care benefits and more inclusive disability compensation for veterans.
With an assurance that President Joe Biden will sign it into law quickly, the Senate voted 86-11 to approve the comprehensive Honoring Our PACT Act, which includes the long-awaited Camp Lejeune Justice Act.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the cost of the PACT Act at almost $300 billion.
Those Exposed to Toxins Now Have Legal Options
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act will clear the way for legal claims for those harmed by four decades of water contamination at the Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
Under the new law, the U.S. government will be precluded from asserting immunity to Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuits that otherwise would be available. It will also override a long-time North Carolina state law that prohibits the filing of claims after 10 years.
Passage of the PACT Act followed several days of negotiations between Senate Democrats and Republicans, along with angry protests by veterans groups upset that it failed to pass a week earlier.
“Our veterans across America can breathe a sigh of relief now,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “The treatment that they deserve and have been denied by the VA because of all kinds of legal barriers and presumptions will now be gone.”
Veterans Granted Additional Health Care Coverage
PACT Act legislation will expand health care coverage for an estimated 3.5 million veterans. It will add conditions related to toxic exposure and burn pits around the world.
The bill designates 23 different diseases presumed to be linked to military service. Veterans will now receive expedited health services and VA disability compensation without having to provide proof of military-related exposure.
It will provide immediate help for those post-9/11 veterans who were exposed in the burn pits used in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations.
Biden reiterated his support for the bill both before and after the vote in the Senate. And it’s especially personal for him. He believes the brain cancer that killed his son Beau was at least partially caused by overseas exposure to burn pits during his time in the National Guard. The president mentioned burn pits in his State of the Union address.
Negotiations Over Funding Held Up PACT Act Passage
Although the PACT Act passed easily with bipartisan support, it became controversial in July when the Senate failed to pass it quickly after it fell five votes short.
The Senate passed the bill once back in June, but then rejected it in July after the House of Representatives made slight revisions, requiring another vote in the Senate.
When 25 Republican Senators rejected the changes made in the House, the bill failed to pass, turning it into a partisan affair and sparking considerable protest.
The debate was over the specifics of funding the bill, the discretionary spending on nonmilitary programs and how to protect the Department of Veterans Affairs from being overwhelmed by a sudden influx of new patients.
“Look, these kind of back and forths happen all the time in the legislative process, you’ve observed that over the years,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I think in the end, the veterans service organizations will be pleased with the final result.”
Those results will include coverage of a wide range of health issues, far beyond the post-9/11 burn pits. There are provisions for Vietnam War-era veterans who were affected by Agent Orange.
There is a wide-open benefits clause regarding Camp Lejeune water contamination, and expanded coverage for veterans exposed to radiation during the 1960s and ‘70s.
“Today’s passage of the PACT Act is a landmark victory for veterans of all ages, of all conflicts and for their families,” said Timothy Borland, commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.