Benefits for Burn Pit Victims Stalled After Senate Republicans Block Veterans Health Care Bill

burn pit afghanistan

The flames of a burn pit pick up with the winds as a storm approaches Combat Outpost Tangi Aug. 31, 2009, in the Tangi Valley, Afghanistan. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade.

US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade.

A bill that could help millions of veterans sickened by burn pit smoke or other toxins overseas came to a grinding halt Wednesday in an unexpected move that infuriated lawmakers and that advocates said will cost veterans their lives.

The Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act was up for a July 27 procedural vote in the Senate, but late Wednesday 25 Republicans who supported a nearly identical prior version of the bill last month changed their stance, largely blaming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for not allowing votes on amendments sought by Republicans who wanted to rein in spending. But many veterans and their advocates were outraged at the bill’s last-minute blockage.

“How many veterans are going to die without their treatment because of you?” Rosie Torres, co-founder of Burn Pits 360, said at a rally Thursday morning on Capitol Hill organized by Democrats and veteran service organizations. “Please explain to us what is an acceptable amount of death.”

The PACT Act was the result of years of advocacy by veterans groups and would have been the biggest overhaul in history of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ process for treating and providing benefits to veterans sickened by toxic exposures while serving overseas.

With a price tag of about $280 billion over 10 years, it would establish a presumption of service connection for 23 cancers and respiratory illnesses linked to exposure to burn pit smoke, Agent Orange, and other toxins, paving a smoother path for veterans to receive medical care and disability benefits for those illnesses. The bill would also expand care to more than 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans exposed to such toxins.

burn pit afghanistan veterans benefits

US Marine Lance Cpl. Richard Carmichael with the Warfighter Exchange Service Team, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, disposes of trash at the burn pit in Forward Operating Base Zeebrudge, Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2013. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz.

US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz.

The massive bill would also provide new benefits for veterans exposed to radiation during the Cold War, direct the VA to establish 31 new medical clinics across the country, and expand the list of locations with presumed Agent Orange exposure, among other provisions.

The PACT Act needed 60 votes to pass. The final vote was 55-42 with Schumer switching to a “no” vote and entering a motion to allow for a second vote to take place at a later date. All 41 other “no” votes came from Senate Republicans, 25 of whom voted in favor of the previous version of the bill last month.

“If you have the guts to send somebody to war, then you’d better have the guts to take care of them when they get back home,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, fumed in a speech from the Senate floor after the vote. “Or don’t send them in the first place.”

Many of the Republican senators who voted against the act have stayed quiet since Wednesday’s vote, but Sen. Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania said he voted against it because it included a “budget gimmick” that would reclassify nearly $400 billion of projected discretionary spending as mandatory, making it easier for appropriators to use that money elsewhere in the budget.

"[It’s] designed to allow hundreds of billions of dollars in additional, unrelated spending having nothing to do with veterans,” Toomey said after the vote.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said there had been an agreement between Tester and Senate Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, for two amendment votes. But Cornyn said Schumer would not allow those votes to take place.

Burn Pit veterans benefits

Sgt. Robert B. Brown watches over the civilian firefighters at the Camp Fallujah burn pit as smoke and flames rise into the night sky behind him on May 25, 2007. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Samuel D. Corum.

US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Samuel D. Corum.

“What we’re hoping for is there will be a negotiation to eliminate some of the mandatory spending in the bill,” Cornyn said, according to Roll Call. “And then the bill can pass. But this is a cloture vote to provoke a conversation … but I expect it ultimately will pass in some form or another.”

But Tester had no patience for Republicans in a statement Wednesday night.

“This eleventh-hour act of cowardice will actively harm this country’s veterans and their families,” Tester wrote. “Republicans chose today to rob generations of toxic-exposed veterans across this country of the health care and benefits they so desperately need—and make no mistake, more veterans will suffer and die as a result.”

According to a 2015 Department of Veterans Affairs report, several million veterans may have been exposed to burn pits in Afghanistan, Djibouti, and the Southwest Asia theater of operations. Many medical experts believe smoke and other emissions from the burning of waste can have long-term health effects. However, it has long been the responsibility of veterans to prove their illnesses were service-connected, a burden the PACT Act sought to mitigate. Between 2007 and 2020, the VA denied about 78% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure.

While numerous veteran organizations including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and American Legion lobbied for the PACT Act, the toxic exposure research and advocacy group HunterSeven Foundation critiqued the bill’s focus on compensation over prevention.

“We need early identification of cancers, cancer screenings, not just within the VA but overall,” HunterSeven wrote on social media. “This bill does not do that. [...] No amount of money can fill the heartbreaking loss of a loved one. Cancer screening early on for those at risk saves lives.”

It’s not clear when the vote might be rescheduled. The Senate is expected to leave for a monthlong recess on Aug. 5, and senators are scrambling to pass legislation before going back to their home states. But Democratic lawmakers and veteran advocates rallying on Capitol Hill Thursday are urging the Senate to stay in session until the bill is passed without amendments or further delays.

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Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear-gassed during the 2020-21 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.
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