Senate Finally Passes Bill Boosting Health Benefits for Veterans

After Republicans nearly derailed what was widely believed to be a popular bipartisan effort to expand health care to vets exposed to harmful toxins, the PACT Act finally passed the Senate, Tuesday, Aug. 2. 

It passed a vote of 86 – 11 on Tuesday. The PACT Act cleared the House of Representatives in July and will be signed into law by Joe Biden. 

The PACT Act is set to expand healthcare benefits to more than 3 million veterans and 9/11 first responders who have been exposed to toxins like those found in Agent Orange and burn pits (heaps of trash and waste that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan often burned using jet fuel). The bill also removed requirements preventing veterans from accessing care because they had to prove their illnesses had been caused by on-duty exposure to harmful toxins. 

But despite the cause and the ostensible bipartisan support for the PACT Act, its pathway to passage turned out to be surprisingly bumpy. A version of the bill actually passed the Senate in June by an overwhelming 84 – 14 vote, but “administrative issues” in the text forced both chambers of Congress to vote on it again. While it easily cleared by a vote of 342 to 88, upon its arrival in the Senate, Pennsylvania’s outgoing Republican Senator Pat Toomey raised concerns about spending increases and an array of Republicans — including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — suddenly pulled their support. 

The following fight over the fate of the bill gained particular prominence thanks to comedian and veterans rights advocate, Jon Stewart. “You don’t support the troops. You support the war machine,” Stewart said at one point. “They haven’t met a war they won’t sign up for and they haven’t met a veteran they won’t screw over.” 

Expanding veteran health benefits and passing the PACT Act in particular have been a major priority for Biden. In the past, the president has speculated that the cancer that caused the death of his son, Beau Biden, may have been caused by exposure to harmful burn pit toxins during Beau’s deployments in Iraq. 

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