Office of Senator Maria Cantwell announcement.
On Aug. 2, the U.S. Senate passed historic legislation 86-11 that would help millions of veterans exposed to toxic materials in the line of duty access health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 would expand VA health care eligibility for exposure to toxic burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, automatically covering treatment for veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001. The bill also allocates funds to expand care services at 31 VA facilities across the nation, including $36.13 million for the Richland VA Clinic in Washington state.
“The PACT Act will help over 124,000 post-9/11 veterans living in Washington state get care if they were exposed to toxins,” Sen. Cantwell said. “This legislation also specifically authorizes funding to expand the VA Richland Outpatient Clinic, giving Tri-Cities area veterans more primary care, mental health, and specialty care options.”
The Senate had previously passed the PACT Act in June with an 84-14 bipartisan vote, and the House went on to pass it 342-88. But last week, just after Democrats announced a plan to move forward with the Inflation Reduction Act, 25 Republican senators suddenly pulled their support and changed their vote — the Republicans claimed that they disagreed with how the measure would be funded and believed that veterans should have to ask Congress to reapprove funding for the measure every year, instead of being able to rely on an automatic allocation.
Sen. Cantwell has steadfastly supported the PACT Act, which now awaits President Biden’s signature.
The bill is named after Sergeant First Class Health Robinson, a medic in the Ohio Army National Guard who died after a battle with a rare form of cancer caused by his exposure to burn pits in Iraq.
Burn pits were commonly used to dispose of waste in or around military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan up until around 2010. These open-air pits would often include dangerous chemical compounds and hazardous materials, exposing service members to toxic fumes that can cause short- and long-term medical conditions.
The PACT Act also authorizes $36 million for the Tri-Cities Outpatient Clinic, which will allow the clinic to lease a much larger space. The new facility would provide primary care, mental health, certain specialty care and ancillary services to veterans in the Tri-Cities area. The new clinic location would expand on care currently provided at the existing Richland Outpatient Clinic lease and relieve pressure at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla.
Sen. Cantwell is a strong advocate for veterans in Washington state and across the nation. Last year, in response to an uptick in call volume to veteran suicide hotlines, she joined a bipartisan group of her colleagues calling on the VA to swiftly develop a program that proactively reaches out to veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq and provides them with mental health resources.
“This plan must proactively contact veterans in the coming months through means including, but not be limited to: digital correspondence, social media, phone calls, and text messages,” the senators wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough. “Furthermore, VA’s outreach should consist of detailed information on clinical mental health services and community-based support systems, such as Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and VA Vet Centers. For example, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is just one of many VSOs that helps connect veterans to services critical to mental health and overall well-being.”
In 2020, she and her fellow Senate Democrats advocated for Vietnam veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange in the line of duty, calling on the Trump administration to stop stonewalling critical benefits for service members suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism and hypertension related to their exposure.
“Your Administration’s refusal to add these conditions to the presumptive list continues to deny more than 190,000 sick and aging veterans the health care and compensation they have earned and desperately need,” the senators wrote. “More than fifty years after their service and sacrifice, these veterans continue to suffer the detrimental effects of their exposure each day. These heroes deserve more than inaction and indecision from their own government— they deserve justice.”