Next week, the Senate will vote on the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022, major legislation that will help millions of service members and veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxins and are now suffering from rare cancers, lung diseases, and respiratory illnesses.
The centerpiece of the legislation is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bipartisan Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, which comprises section 406. Most importantly, Gillibrand’s provision establishes a presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins.
Under current law, a veteran who has an illness or disability as a result of their burn pit exposure must, in most cases, establish a direct service connection in order to be eligible for VA benefits. Direct service connection means that evidence establishes that a particular injury or disease resulting in a disability was incurred while in service in the Armed Forces. For veterans exposed to burn pits, this means they need to provide medical evidence of a current disease or disability, provide personal or other evidence of in-service physical presence near a specific burn pit or exposure to specific toxins or substances, and provide evidence of a link between the disability or illness and exposure. Upon completion of these steps, the VA determines if there is enough evidence to provide a medical exam and continue with the disability compensation claim. Therefore, it is currently the veteran’s responsibility to prove their illness or disability is directly connected to burn pit exposure.
Gillibrand’s provision would establish a presumptive service connection, removing the “burden of proof” from the veteran to provide enough evidence to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure. Rather, the veteran would only need to submit evidence of deployment to one of the countries named in the bill during the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War and documentation that they suffer from a qualifying health condition.
“No longer will our veterans be forced to suffer as Congress fails to act. This bill will establish a presumptive service connection for toxic burn pit exposure and ensure veterans receive the care, not that they deserve, but that they’ve earned. It’s time Congress understands that its obligation to our veterans doesn’t end once they finish their service–put simply, these benefits are the cost of war.” – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
Timeline of action
Gillibrand first introduced the legislation in September 2020, alongside a bicameral group that included Representative Raul Ruiz (D-CA), comedian Jon Stewart, activist John Feal, and a strong coalition of veterans service organizations. The group introduced an updated, bipartisan version in the spring of 2021 together with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representative Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA).
In March 2022, the House of Representatives passed the Honoring Our PACT Act, an effort led by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano and Gillibrand’s House co-lead, Congressman Raul Ruiz. Their bill is included in the Honoring Our PACT Act as the centerpiece of the presumptive coverage section.
Also in March, Gillibrand held a hearing in her role as chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee to examine the health effects of burn pits.
Later that month, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer joined the coalition to announce his support for the bill and pledged to give it a vote in the Senate.
In May 2022, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester and Ranking Member Jerry Moran announced a bipartisan deal on toxic exposure legislation. Their package, the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022, is an amended version of the House-passed Honoring Our PACT Act and retains Gillibrand’s bill as the cornerstone of the presumptive care section.
Additional background: Gillibrand has made fighting for health benefits for service members and first responders a cornerstone of her career.
9-11 First Responders: Gillibrand led the effort to pass the bipartisan Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act in 2019, which fully funded and extended the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. In 2010, she authored and passed the James Zadroga 9-11 Health and Compensation Act, which both created the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP) and reopened the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). In October of 2018, following the announcement that the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) was set to run out of funding before its expiration date in 2020, Senator Gillibrand introduced a bipartisan bill to permanently reauthorize and fund VCF for 9-11 heroes and their families.
Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act: Gillibrand spent a decade championing this bipartisan legislation, which ensured that Blue Water Navy veterans received disability benefits due to Agent Orange exposure. In 2002, a VA decision excluded Blue Water Navy veterans from presumptive coverage for Agent Orange because they did not have orders for “boots on the ground” during the Vietnam War, despite the fact that they were stationed on ships off the Vietnamese coast. Gillibrand’s legislation enshrined into law the Blue Water Navy veterans’ right to their benefits.