Louisiana’s two U.S. senators joined the majority to expand care for veterans who suffer from illnesses because of exposure to toxins during their military service – legislation that last week they joined fellow Republicans to delay.
U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, and John N. Kennedy, of Madisonville, had voted last week against a motion to conclude debate, a procedural maneuver that often kills bills, in order to consider amendments they thought would clarify wording in the measure.
Both voted Tuesday for the amendments, which were defeated, then joined an 86-11 majority backing the legislation that was largely unchanged from last week. The bill now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk, and he is expected to sign it.
Louisiana has about 283,000 veterans. How many from Louisiana were made ill from the fumes of burn pits, exposure to radiation and other toxins is unknown.
Officially known as the “Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act,” the PACT Act aims to expand benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to 3.5 million veterans nationwide. The PACT Act is named after Ohio Army National Guard Sgt. Heath Robinson, a medic deployed to Kosovo and Iraq who died in May 2020 after being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder and stage 4 lung cancer.
“As a doctor, I know the importance of the PACT Act to care for our veterans and happily voted for final passage,” Cassidy said in a tweet.
“Sen. Kennedy has always supported veterans,” said Jess Andrews, Kennedy’s spokesperson. “He never voted against the bill but voted to extend time to improve the bill. The senator supported amendments that would help improve the bill to ensure resources wouldn’t be siphoned away from veterans, but Senate Democrats blocked that effort. While he is disappointed that this important improvement to the bill wasn’t possible, he remains committed to making sure veterans get the benefits they deserve, including through the PACT Act.”
Republicans wanted changes to technical language that moved money from one pot to another and raised a possibility that the funds could be used elsewhere. Republicans took a political shellacking for slowing up progress to the most sweeping veterans’ healthcare measure in a generation that had been backed by nearly all the senators, including Cassidy and Kennedy. Veterans camped out on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in protest to the delay and comedian Jon Stewart criticized Republican senators by name.
Military-Veterans Advocacy, a Slidell-based non-profit, noted that instead of requiring veterans to prove exposure caused their illness, the PACT Act made it easier to raise claims for 23 diseases and disabilities suffered by veterans exposed to open air burn pits in Southwest Asia. The bill also covers radiation exposure received by some veterans in Eniwetok, Palomares, Spain and Uzbekistan. Additionally, it provides coverage for those veterans who served during the Vietnam Era in Guam, American Samoa, Johnston Island, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
“We have always emphasized the need for comprehensive legislation,” said Cdr. John B Wells, U.S. Navy (ret.) and chair of Military-Veterans Advocacy. “The PACT Act is a huge victory for veterans.”
American Legion National Commander Paul E. Dillard said in a statement: “After some unusual delays for a bill that is largely identical to what passed on June 16, a bipartisan majority of senators voted in favor of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act. This act will save lives and offer health care and benefits for those exposed to the poisons of war while serving our country.”
The PACT Act will:
- Expand VA health care eligibility for veterans potentially impacted by toxic exposures.
- Ensures veterans can receive health care screenings and services related to potential toxic exposures and expands access to VA health care services for veterans exposed during their military service.
- Eases qualification for VA services by codifying a new process for evaluating and determining presumption of exposure and service connection for various chronic conditions when the evidence of a military environmental exposure and the associated health risks are strong taken together but hard to prove on an individual basis.
- Removes the burden of proof from veterans diagnosed with 23 conditions. List includes 11 respiratory related conditions, along with several forms of cancer, including reproductive cancers, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, and brain cancers such as glioblastoma. Survivors of veterans who died due to one of these conditions may now also be eligible for benefits.
- Pays for new studies on the impact of toxic exposures and analyzes health trends for veterans.
- Adds mechanisms to speed claims processing and to increase the workforce.
- Authorizes upgrades and expansions to 31 medical health clinics and research facilities in 19 states, including Louisiana.