Senate passes bill to expand health benefits for service members exposed to burn pits

PACT Act named for Ohio soldier
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Posted at 5:23 PM, Jun 16, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a showing of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate has passed legislation to expand health benefits for military members exposed to toxic burn pits. Thursday, an amended version of the ‘Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics’ (PACT) Act passed 84-14.

“When a man or woman volunteers and goes overseas and serves us, they make a commitment to us. We make a commitment to them, if they’re injured in battle or they get sick from exposure to toxic chemicals or something else, that we take care of them,” Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told News 5 following the vote.

The bill, which is an amended version of the Honoring Our PACT Act passed by the House of Representatives in March, was named for an Ohio Army National Guardsmen.

Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson died in 2020, 3 years after a lung cancer diagnosis. The condition was linked to the soldier’s exposure to toxic burn pits during tours in Iraq and Kosovo.

“When we saw our oncologist in Columbus, Ohio, the first thing he said when he came into the room was, ‘What have you been exposed to?’” Robinson’s widow Danielle Robinson told CNN in late May. “The way this cancer [was] presenting is only due to toxic exposure and he didn't have any genetic factors. He was a nonsmoker, was running half marathons about six months before his diagnosis. So it was actually our oncologist that brought it up first.”

Burn pits were commonly used in military zones up until 2010 to incinerate everything from trash to hazardous waste to ammunition. Some estimate as many as 3.5 million service members, including 86% of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, were exposed to the toxic fumes from the pits.

“These soldiers are actually prisoners of war at home in their own bodies as they're battling these health-related illnesses from toxic exposures,” Robinson said.

For years, military families, celebrities and other advocates have been calling for the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover claims connected to burn pit exposure.

According to bill co-sponsor Jon Tester (D-MT), the PACT Act will expand health care for Post-9/11 combat veterans, create a framework for the establishment of future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure, expand the VA’s list of service presumptions, and improve resources to support VA’s claims processing.

Sen. Brown said, “If an American serving our country is exposed to these toxic chemicals, we provide the healthcare they’ve earned, period, no questions asked, no exceptions every time.”

The bill will now return to the U.S. House of Representatives for a final vote on the amended bill. Senate leaders have pledged to bring the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk for a signature quickly.