Senate Republicans did yet another about-face last week and approved what should have been an uncontroversial bill designed to help veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances. The journey to their vote certainly wasn’t a shining example of statesmanship, but the result is worthy of applause — expanded health care and benefits for an estimated 3.5 million veterans, including more than 354,000 in Washington state.
The Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, will ease access to $280 billion in aid for men and women suffering from cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, and other illnesses related to their exposure to waste incinerated in open-air pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The act also extends more help to Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange and to veterans exposed to radiation or other hazards during their service.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy. The measure passed the Senate on a bipartisan 84-14 vote in June, but when the House of Representative made a few technical changes and returned it to the Senate, Republicans reversed course and voted it down. Critics claimed the bill included a budgetary gimmick that would clear the way for unrelated spending.
Veterans’ groups were outraged, and Democrats accused the GOP of voting against the bill in retaliation for a sudden breakthrough in economic and climate change legislation opposed by Republicans. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, didn’t help matters when he was seen fist-bumping colleagues after the vote.
The criticism from veterans — and comedian and veterans supporter Jon Stewart — clearly made a difference. The PACT Act was passed on an 86-11 roll call vote last week, with 37 Republicans in favor.
The hard work lies ahead, as the Department of Veterans Affairs implements the measure. The VA has rejected approximately 70% of disability claims from veterans ailing from their exposure to burn pits because they couldn’t prove the connection. The PACT Act eases that requirement.
The bill also includes $36 million in funding sought by Washington’s Sen. Patty Murray for a new VA clinic in the Tri-Cities. That’s good news for veterans in our region who endure long waits and long drives for health care. Though progressives sometimes prefer to ignore it, Washington is a major military state with several bases and other facilities.
The Washington Department of Veteran Affairs is offering assistance with new claims preparation and filing and has established a website to answer questions. Help is also available at 800-698-2411.
Veterans’ groups deserve praise for demanding, yet again, that the U.S. government honor its commitment to provide adequate care to the men and women who served their country. Even in our hyperpartisan era, that commitment shouldn’t be so hard to keep.