Senate passes burn pits bill giving veterans sick and dying from toxic exposure healthcare access

The US Senate has passed a landmark burn pits bill that will finally give veterans who are sick and dying from toxic exposure access to the healthcare and benefits that they need – after more than a decade of fighting.

Senators voted 84 to 14 in favour of passing the SFC Heath Robinson Honoring our PACT Act on Thursday, sending it back to the House for another final vote before it lands on the president’s desk.

Veterans, their families and advocates celebrated its passage after spending years battling for the US government to take the issue of burn pits seriously, losing many service men and women to rare cancers, respiratory conditions and toxic brain injuries amid the wait.

The bill passed on late Sgt Heath Robinson’s daughter Brielle’s ninth birthday. He died aged 39 from a cancer caused by burn pits in 2020.

Susan Zeier, the mother-in-law of Sgt Heath Robinson, said at a press conference on Capitol Hill that the bill’s passage means she now no longer needs to “carry Heath on my shoulders”.

Ms Zeier told how she has been wearing her son-in-law’s army jacket for the last four years to draw attention to the fight for healthcare and disability access for veterns.

“I’ve been wearing this since the summer of 2018 and today, with this bill passing the Senate, I think it’s time to retire it,” she said.

“I no longer have to carry Heath on my shoulders.”

Jen Birch, a US veteran and IAVA representative, told American service men and women that they can now “take a deep breathe” on what marks a “monumental day”.

“Lives will be saved, children will have their parent around to watch them grow up,” she said. “If you are a veteran now watching this: take a deep breathe. Help is on the way.”

She added: “Whether you get sick or whether you die, your family wil be taken care of. Help is on the way.”

Moments before the historic vote, Senator Jon Tester told his fellow lawmakers on the Senate floor: “This bill is about righting a wrong that has been ignored for just too damn long.”

The Democrat, who worked with Republican Senator Jerry Moran on the bipartian bill, said the vote “makes history” and will finally end “the days of ignoring the wounds from toxic exposure”.

The bill will head back to the House for a vote before it can be sent to President Joe Biden to be signed into law.

Passage in the House is almost certain as all Democrats and 34 Republicans voted in favour of its passage back in March, sending it sailing over the threshold with a 256 to 174 vote.

Last month, senators then reached a bipartisan deal on the bill, modifying the House version to create a phase-in period for illnesses presumptively linked to toxic exposure.

Despite this agreement reached between Senators Tester and Moran – the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee – the bill had stalled in the Senate since the start of June as lawmakers put forward a series of amendments.

Now, following the bill’s passage in the Senate on Thursday, the House must now pass this new version.

Mr Biden, who believes his son Beau Biden may have died as a result of toxic exposure to burn pits, has previously urged Congress to pass legislation to support veterans impacted by burn pits and said he will sign the bill as soon as it lands on his desk.

Under the legislation, 23 cancers, respiratory illnesses and other conditions will now be presumptively linked to a veterans’ exposure to burn pits while on deployment overseas.

This means service men and women who have returned home from serving their country and developed one of these conditions will be given automatic access to healthcare and disability benefits.

It will also fund federal research on the impact of burn pits on the nation’s troops.

The legislation will cost around $180bn over the next four years.

Speaking on the Senate floor ahead of the vote on Thursday morning, Sen Moran said that “freedom is not free”.

“There’s no doubt that the cost of this is high but freedom is not free,” he said.

“There’s always a cost of war… the cost of war is not fully paid when the war is over.”

He added: “We are now on the verge of honouring our commitment [to the men and women who served the US].”

The bill was renamed in March after the late Sgt First Class Heath Robinson who died in May 2020 from a rare cancer caused by breathing in toxic fumes from burn pits while serving in Iraq in the Ohio National Guard. He was 39.

Over the last couple of weeks, Sgt Robinson’s daughter and mother-in-law met with several lawmakers on Capitol Hill urging them to pass the bill in honour of the little girl’s father.

Heath Robinson died at the age of 39 from a rare cancer caused by toxic exposure to burn pits on deployment

(Danielle Robinson)

Sgt Robinson’s widow Danielle Robinson told The Independent in March that it was “bittersweet” to see her husband being honoured with the renaming of the bill.

“It’s an honour to him and his memory is going to live on through it but at the same time I’d rather have him alive with us,” she said.

“I can’t help but think of all the other widows who are deserving of having their loved ones named on the PACT Act.

“It’s not just about our story but all of the other widows out there fighting the battle and losing their loved ones because of toxic exposure to burn pits and it’s about all the current veterans trying to fight for the healthcare they deserve.”

An estimated 3.5m servicemembers and veterans are estimated to have been exposed to burn pits and airborne toxins while serving the US overseas, according to the Veterans Affairs (VA).

During America’s post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, huge open-air pits were used to burn mountains of trash including food packaging, human waste and military equipment on US military bases.

Thousands of US service members returned home from deployment and developed health conditions including rare cancers, lung conditions, respiratory illnesses and toxic brain injuries caused by breathing in the toxic fumes from the pits.

But, until now, the burden of proof has always been on veterans to prove their condition is directly caused by this toxic exposure.

In September 2020, a senior VA official testified before Congress that almost 80 percent of disability claims mentioning burn pits were rejected between 2007 and 2020.

In the last six months, the president has made tackling the issue of burn pits a higher priority and repeatedly urged lawmakers in the House and Senate to pass legislation to support veterans.

During his State of the Union address in March, Mr Biden connected Beau Biden’s death to his exposure to burn pits during his deployment to Iraq.

Last week, the president signed into law a package of nine bills to improve healthcare access for US veterans, including legislation that ensures female veterans who served near burn pits have access to breast cancer screenings.