WARWICK, RI – After Congress passed the largest expansion of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in generations, President Joe Biden signed the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT) Act, and U.S. Senator Jack Reed, who helped pass the law, urged Rhode Island veterans impacted by toxic exposures to apply for VA health care and benefits, even if their previous application was rejected.

Reed, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (Milcon-VA), noted that the new law expands health care access to over 3.5 million veterans and adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related health conditions to the VA’s list of presumptive conditions, including bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and numerous cancers and respiratory illnesses.  It also requires VA to provide free toxic exposure screening to every veteran enrolled in VA health care.

“The PACT Act is a victory for veterans and honors our promise to care for them.  Those Republicans who voted against this bill and delayed it tried to argue the PACT Act is too generous to veterans who served in combat and then came home and developed rare cancers and respiratory issues years later.  I think they’re wrong, and it’s clear that the vast majority of Americans want to ensure our veterans are properly cared for.  Frankly, this bill was long overdue,” said Reed.  “Veterans with these rare and often terminal medical conditions deserve our respect and access to the specialized care they need.  The PACT Act offers more than words of thanks, it’s a concrete commitment to fulfilling our moral obligation to care for veterans in need.  I appreciate President Biden swiftly signing it into law and I know the VA is working hard to assist our veterans.”

The PACT Act is estimated to cost more than $270 billion over the span of a decade.

Vietnam era, Gulf War era, and Post-9/11 era veterans are most likely to be impacted by the new law and could see new benefits that weren’t previously covered, and as many as 37,000 veterans across Rhode Island could benefit as a result of the PACT Act.

Veterans can immediately file PACT Act-related disability compensation claims by going to the VA’s PACT Act benefits page or by calling:  800-698-2411 (TTY: 711).

Reed pointed out that in addition to health care benefits, the new law also boosts toxic exposure research, invests in VA’s workforce to better serve new claimants, and improves toxic exposure-related education and training for VA personnel.

“The PACT Act will help increase our understanding of the connection between health consequences and exposure to toxins, whether it’s from burn pits or other types of exposure to chemicals and pollutants, and that has the potential to benefit Americans from all walks of life,” said Reed.

Over the last several decades, the U.S. military relied on open air burn pits in overseas combat settings to dispose of trash – potentially exposing millions of military personnel to toxic fumes.  As the name implies, burn pits are pits where all forms of waste, including toxic waste, are disposed of by burning.  U.S. service members lived and worked in close proximity to these burn pits, often without knowing the potential consequences to their long-term health or any way to avoid them.

Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has recognized the harm burn pits can cause.  Senator Reed has been a leader in confronting the military’s use of open air burn pits, ensuring accountability at DoD, protecting the health of our men and women in uniform, and assisting veterans who were exposed to toxins.  He has also supported military funding for safer waste management alternatives such as closed systems and deployable alternatives to open air burn pits.

When Reed became Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he included language in the first national defense bill he wrote that would bar the military from using open burn pits in overseas operations.  As the bill moved through committee, it was amended so that the law now states that the only way that DoD can use a burn pit overseas is if the Secretary of Defense personally issues a waiver. 

Additionally, Senator Reed is an original cosponsor of S. 952, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2021.  This bill was the basis for the additional 23 presumptive conditions that were included in the final version of the Honoring Our PACT Act.