Post-9/11 Burn Pit Bill Clears Congress

Post-9/11 Burn Pit Bill Clears Congress

US Capitol
Photo by: Architect of the Capitol

An Association of the U.S. Army-supported bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits passed the Senate on Aug. 2 and will soon be on its way to the White House for President Joe Biden’s signature. 

It passed the Senate 86-11. The House of Representatives passed it in July, 342-88. 

Named for Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, a Kosovo and Iraq veteran who died in 2020 from a rare form of lung cancer, the measure establishes a presumption in favor of veterans with certain forms of cancer and respiratory illnesses and makes them eligible for veterans’ health care and disability pay. This would be similar to the presumption provided to Vietnam veterans who have health issues that might be linked to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange. 

Robinson was an Ohio National Guard soldier who enlisted in 2003 and served overseas with the 285th Area Support Medical Company. He was NCO of the Year for the Ohio Army National Guard two times. Robinson was 39 years old when he died after a three-year cancer battle.  

The measure is also known as the PACT Act, which comes from the title “Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics.” 

Military units deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq commonly used large outdoor pits to burn waste including food, packaging, medical waste, plastic, metal and rubber. The open-air burn pits—large and small—were mostly phased out by 2010 when incinerators were delivered to areas with large troop concentrations. The Army later spent billions destroying the incinerators. 

The bill is a sweeping measure that could expand health care coverage to the more than 3.5 million combat veterans who served in the post-9/11 era. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, created in 2014, includes the names of more than 289,000 service members or veterans who believe they were potentially exposed to toxic hazards while deployed. 

Retired Gen. Bob Brown, AUSA president and CEO, said the bipartisan bill is an example of taking care of soldiers after the fighting is over. “Our nation owes it to our soldiers and their families to do our utmost to provide excellent post-war health care and benefits without a lot of red tape,” he said in endorsing the bill. “That’s what this legislation would do, addressing a risk soldiers faced from burn pits that they could not avoid.” 

The legislation was controversial because of the potential for excessive costs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in June that it could cost $390 billion over the next decade. Attempts were made to cap the cost, but supporters argued that caps could lead to denying care to some otherwise-eligible veterans. 

As passed, service members and veterans would be eligible for medical care, mental health services and counseling if they had toxic exposure while in the service. They would have to show they were in an area where exposure was possible. The VA could presume for health and disability purposes that cancers and respiratory problems were the result of military service. 

The bill also includes the expansion of presumptions for some veterans exposed to radiation and expands some Agent Orange-related coverage for hospital, medical and nursing home care.