Following months of tireless advocacy, and all out push standing with veterans from Rochester to Central New York, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer today announced the Senate passage of the Honoring Our Promise To Address Comprehensive Toxins Act (Honoring Our PACT Act) to finally get health coverage for veterans, who were exposed to burn pit smoke and other environmental hazards, that caused cancers and other illnesses during their service. As Majority Leader, Schumer fought relentlessly to ensure the bill would be brought for a swift vote to keep our nation’s commitment to our veterans and thousands of vets across New York who will now be able to get the treatment they earned. The bill as amended now heads to House of Representatives for action, Schumer calls on the House to act quickly to pass this bill and send it to President Biden’s desk where it will be signed into law.
“Thousands of Upstate New York veterans, and over three and a half million vets across America, have been exposed to toxins from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan in the line of duty, and for too long, bureaucratic rules have denied them treatment for cancers, respiratory diseases, and the countless other illnesses incurred while fighting for our freedom. The bill also deals with ongoing health issues our vets have from exposure to Agent Orange,” said Senator Schumer. “Every breath our veterans take is a reminder of their sacrifice for our country. Our nation told these veterans that if they put their lives and health on the line to protect our freedoms, we would take care of them, and the Senate passage of this long overdue legislation keeps that promise to have their back and provide them the full health benefits they deserve.”
Schumer explained that the Honoring Our PACT Act will expand health care access for veterans affected by exposure to harmful substances, toxins, and other environmental hazards, including from burn pits, which put service members in Iraq and Afghanistan in proximity of airborne hazards with the open-air combustion of trash and other waste like chemicals and munitions. Toxins in burn pit smoke have been shown to potentially have long-term effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract, and internal organs, but veterans often face a complicated disability benefit claims process at the VA to get access to the health care they need. Schumer said this legislation will open up VA health care to the tens of thousands of toxic-exposed veterans in New York, and 3.5 million veterans nationally exposed to toxic substances during their service even if they do not have a service-connected disability.
Schumer has a long history of fighting to expand healthcare coverage for veterans and fighting to deliver the treatment they deserve. In 2020, Schumer stood with Upstate New York Vietnam War veterans across the state to demand the inclusion of additional diseases to the Agent Orange presumptive conditions list. After a full court press that he launched in Upstate New York, Schumer was successfully able to secure the expansion of the list to include bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism for diseases associated with ‘Agent Orange’ exposure in the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The Honoring Our Pact Act expands on Schumer’s previous advocacy for Agent Orange exposure by further adding hypertension to the list of presumptive conditions. In addition, the bill also provides new or increased disability benefits to thousands of veterans by designating 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers as likely linked to toxic exposures related to military burn pits.
Details of the Honoring Our PACT Act can be found below:
· Provide Priority Group 6 health care for over 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans
· Provide extension of combat eligibility for health care from 5 to 10 years with a one-year open enrollment period for those veterans who missed their window.
· Streamline VA’s review process for establishing toxic exposure presumptions
· Concede exposure to airborne hazards/burn pits based on locations & dates of service
· Require medical exams/opinions for certain veterans with toxic exposure disability claims
· Add hypertension and Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance to the list of presumptions for Agent Orange exposure
· Establish a presumption of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers related to burn pits/airborne hazards exposure
· Create a presumption of exposure to radiation for veterans who participated in cleanup activities in Palomares, Spain, and Enewetak Atoll
· Expand Agent Orange exposure to veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia
· Improve data collection between VA and the Department of Defense
· Commission studies related to incidents of cancer among veterans, health trends of Post 9/11 veterans and feasibility of providing healthcare to dependents of veterans
· Require VA to provide standardized training to improve toxic exposure disability claims adjudications
· Require VA to conduct outreach and provide resources to toxic exposed veterans
· Resources VA with additional workforce and facilities investments to deliver these historic benefits to veterans across the country