HELENA — The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that will expand care for veterans that were exposed to toxins during their service, including chemicals emitted from burn pits.
The Honoring our PACT Act of 2021 passed with bipartisan support by a vote of 256-174. The $208 billion bill is aimed at helping the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provide additional benefits to veterans suffering from more than a dozen illnesses suspected of being connected to toxic exposure during service.
The legislation follows a bipartisan push in the Senate led by Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jon Tester, D-Mont., to similarly address the care of veterans. Tester’s original bill was broken into three pieces of legislation as an effort to get that bipartisan support.
“We've got the first phase done. I think the fact that the House has passed the big bill only adds to the urgency of this and our ability to get the three phases done in a timely manner,” Tester told Newsy’s Maritsa Georgiou this week.
Opponents of expanding VA coverage have pointed to the potential costs associated with such legislation. In recent years the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has recognized that nearly 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans suffered prolonged and pervasive exposure to burn pits and other toxic chemicals they could not avoid. Burn pits were how the military disposed of waste — including plastics — and have been linked to cancer, respiratory illnesses and other diseases.
Tester is hopeful the House’s effort will receive the same if not more support in the Senate. It is likely the House bill will be reconciled with the Senate legislation into a combined package for President Biden to sign.
“The House passed this a wide margin. And if we can get that same kind of effort in the Senate will be able to get a bill before this Congress ends it's really going to work for our veterans in this country that have been exposed to toxic substances,” said Tester.
Editor's Note: Newsy's Maritsa Georgiou contributed to this report.