GOP lawmakers block Senate bill expanding care for toxin-exposed veterans

(The hill) — Republican lawmakers on Wednesday blocked passage of a bill in the U.S. Senate that extends health care coverage to military veterans who were exposed to toxins and burns while serving.

All Democrats and eight Republicans voted for Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson honoring our PACT Act, but the 55 votes in favor were less than the 60 needed to end the filibuster in the Senate. Three senators did not vote.

The PACT Act, which the House passed earlier this month, would provide additional medical coverage for more than 3 million veterans exposed to toxic combustion fireplaces and Vietnam-era veterans exposed to the Agent Orange deadly herbicide.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) said on the floor of the Senate that he did not support the bill because it would create $400 billion in unrelated spending, which he called a “budget trick.”

“My concern about this bill has nothing to do with the intent of the bill,” Toomey said. “This budget stuff is so irrelevant to the real issue for veterans that has to do with fireplaces, that it’s not even in the House version of this bill.”

Although Toomey urged his colleagues to address the issue immediately, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) accused Toomey of “having a problem” with the support of veterans nationwide.

“If you have the guts to send someone off to war, then you better have the guts to take care of them when they come home,” Tester said. “If we don’t take care of our veterans when they come home, they’re going to say, ‘Why should I ever sign the dotted line. Because the promises I made and the promises made by the country, only half of this agreement is fulfilled.

The House passed the PACT Act by a 342-88 vote on July 13, about a month after the Senate passed the bill by an 84-14 vote.

The Senate had to take up the bill on Wednesday because the House passed some minor changes to its version.

The legislation adds 23 poisonous fireplace and combustion fireplace exposure conditions to the Department of Veterans Affairs database while expanding care for post-9/11 veterans who were exposed to combustion fireplaces.

Burn pits were used for the burning of medical waste, human waste, and other wastes needed for disposal. Exposure to these toxins can lead to asthma, rhinitis and cancer.

It also opens care for Vietnam War-era veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll.

Existing coverage for veterans exposed to toxins requires them to prove they contracted their illness while serving and take additional steps that ultimately limit their coverage.

While Toomey said he supported the bill, he argued lawmakers should work to cut wasteful spending amid high inflation.

“We spent money like no one ever imagined,” Toomey said. “I would point out that there is a very simple path to a very big vote in favor of this bill. [but] let’s solve this problem.

Norman D. Briggs