Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 9, 2022. It has since been updated.
Bipartisan legislation to remove red tape that prevents health care access for service members with burn-pit related illnesses is now awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature.
The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022, which features Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, received final passage Tuesday night with an 86-11 vote.
“Our brave men and women in the military always answer the call of duty,” Gillibrand said in a statement posted to YouTube. “They always serve. And for too long men and women are coming home without the support or the health care that they have earned and deserve.”
Advocates from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America America (IAVA) said burn pits might be a reality of war, but having to fight for access to medical care shouldn’t have to be.
“Some don’t even know they’re sick yet. They’re gonna die in a few years,” said Thomas Porter, IAVA’s executive vice president of government affairs.
IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler said in a news release following an earlier Senate vote that representatives had “the chance to reaffirm our country’s commitment to care for past, current and future veterans.”
“Over 80% of IAVA’s members were exposed to burn pits during their deployments,” he said. “This bill keeps a promise to those veterans and the millions of others affected, that the country they fought for is there to fight for them too.”
Currently if a service member is diagnosed with a burn-pit related illness like cancer the burden of proof lies with them. They must be able to connect their presence near a burn pit with their illness to receive care from the Veterans Administration.
Butler said during a rally over Memorial Day Weekend that burn pits were used because they’re “cheap and it’s easy.”
Burn pit waste includes food, plastics, vehicle parts, confidential materials, and medical and human waste. This production of waste must be disposed of and in the absence of an incinerator, the military has historically relied upon burning these materials in burn pits.
The Senate vote removed the burden of proof from those diagnosed with service-connected diseases including asthma and cancer.
It followed the passage of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022 by the House of Representatives on March 3, 2022. The PACT Act package included the Gillibrand’s bipartisan measure that is cosponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and has support from Sens. John Boozeman (R-Ark.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee that oversees the VA.
Prior to the vote, Gillibrand’s staff told Reserve & National Guard Magazine that was a good indication the bill would be supported despite being introduced during a period where fiscal conservatives want to reduce spending.
Rubio said in a news release that the men and women who volunteer to serve their country expect the government to be there for them, and “far too often” that hasn’t been the case.
“Some gave their lives on the battlefield. Others died from debilitating diseases when they came back home. For them, this bill comes too late,” he said. “But for others, it will provide the care they desperately need and selflessly earned. We will never be able to repay them and their families for their sacrifice, but we can — and we must — take care of them now.”
The concept of “presumptive benefits would impact the approximately 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic burn pits while serving overseas.
Even comedian and activist Jon Stewart, who hosted “The Daily Show” from 1999 to 2015, is speaking out in support of the PACT Act and Gillibrand’s bill.
“This may be one of the lowest hanging fruit of the American legislative agenda,” he said during a rally over Memorial Day weekend. “Those that took up arms in defense of this country and its Constitution suffered grievous harm in that defense. And when they came home, we put them on trial. ‘You got cancer? Prove it was us.’”
The bill has also received widespread support from Veteran Service Organizations with more than 50 veteran and military serving nonprofits sent a letter to Congress on June 6, 2022, urging them to pass this bill in support of veterans.