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The Senate passes help for veterans exposed to toxins, after a reversal drew fury

The bill no longer would force generations of veterans to prove that their illness was caused by toxic exposures suffered in the military in order to get VA coverage.

  • NPR
Activist and entertainer Jon Stewart hugs fellow advocate Susan Zeier of Sandusky, Ohio, just after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., assured veterans and military family members that the Senate will vote on a bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Activist and entertainer Jon Stewart hugs fellow advocate Susan Zeier of Sandusky, Ohio, just after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., assured veterans and military family members that the Senate will vote on a bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

The U.S. Senate, in a bipartisan 86-11 vote, approved a measure to provide health care and benefits for millions of veterans injured by exposure to toxins, from Agent Orange in Vietnam to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Known as the PACT Act, the bill no longer would force generations of veterans to prove that their illness was caused by toxic exposures suffered in the military in order to get VA coverage. It had been hailed as the largest expansion of care in VA history, and was expected to cost $280 billion over a decade.

The House passed the measure in July. President Biden, who supports the PACT Act, is expected to sign it into law.

The bill — like many issues related to veterans’ health — had amassed deep bipartisan support, and easily passed the Senate by an 84-14 vote in June. But a technical error required another vote last week, and this time, more than two dozen Republicans switched sides. That triggered an uproar among Democrats and advocacy groups, who accused Republicans of selling veterans out.

Republicans said their opposition was tied to an argument over which portion of the federal budget would pay for $280 billion worth of funds for veteran health programs. But Democratic lawmakers contended that the about-face came just after Democrats reached an agreement of their own on a separate reconciliation bill.

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