The Senate voted for a $ 280 billion package of care for veterans exposed to toxins by the orange agent in Vietnam. It is a rare moment of bipartisan action and the largest expansion of VA care in history.
SACHA PFEIFFER, PRACTICAL:
The biggest expansion of veteran care, perhaps since the creation of the VA, passed in the U.S. Senate this morning and is almost certain to become law. It is called the Promise to Address the Comprehensive Toxins Act, or the PACT Act. It will provide health care and benefits to millions of veterans exposed to burnt pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and also to substances like Agent Orange in Vietnam and radioactive waste during the Cold War. NPR veteran correspondent Quil Lawrence is in line with details about this historic legislation. Hello, Quil.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hello.
PFEIFFER: What exactly will this act do when it becomes law? And why is it such a big deal?
LAWRENCE: Well, it’s massive. The estimated cost is almost $ 280 billion over a decade. And he cares for millions of veterans by giving them what is called conjecture. So far, 70% or 80% of veterinarians trying to get VA coverage for toxic exposures were rejected by the VA because they could not prove that smoke from that incinerator caused that cancer or other disease they had. Now, if they are sick and they were there, they get VA coverage. Presumed. Jen Burch is a veterinarian in Afghanistan and she contracted a lung disease which she battled for years to cover VA. She says many others did not make it today.
JEN BURCH: We look at veterans who have died – you know, Dr. Kate Thomas, Wesley Black, Heath Robinson. You know, they all died young and could not watch their children grow up. But perhaps because of their efforts and their courage to share their stories, this will enable these veteran parents to watch their children grow up.
PFEIFFER: And, Quil, as we said, this covers multiple generations of veterinarians, previous generations exposed to many types of toxins.
LAWRENCE: Right. I spoke yesterday with a Navy vet, Chuck Yunker. His ship was off the coast of Vietnam in 1970. And if the sailors on that ship got VA coverage for their Agent Orange-related illnesses, it depended on whether they were in seawater or river water, from that kind of technique. . And now VA will just have to accept it. If you were there, you would be covered. I spoke with Gary Pulis. He was an Army soldier in 1979 clearing radioactive material in the South Pacific with his bare hands. And veterinarians like him have struggled for 30, for 40, 50 years to get recognition. And there are many other types of exposures included in this invoice. It is comprehensive.
PFEIFFER: You said $ 280 billion. This is extremely expensive. In this partisan climate, it somehow passed the Senate 84-14. How did this happen?
LAWRENCE: Well, all the veterans’ organizations had this as their top priority to push it. And the Veterans Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives, and especially in the Senate, are places where there is still this kind of committee and bipartisanship. But there were also these sick veterinarians and their families who started pushing this a dozen years ago. And it must be said, in recent years, it was – there was a huge celebrity boost that came from comedian Jon Stewart, who dealt with the issue. And he was out of the Capitol today. He was thrilled praising the families who had pushed for the law even after the death of their veteran.
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JON STEWART: Advocating for a cause is – it’s a nice thing to do, but do it in your grief when you know it won’t help your boyfriend, but that’s not what matters to you – is that no one goes through what you went through.
LAWRENCE: And VA has yet to take some time to implement this. This will take some time. But today veterans and veterans advocates are – they are celebrating.
PFEIFFERExBulletin Veteran Correspondent Quil Lawrence, thank you.
LAWRENCE: Thank you.
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