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IAVA | July 29, 2022

READ: A shameful ‘no’ vote on bill to help vets

Legislation blocked by GOP senators would help those sickened by burn pits, Agent Orange. 

Written by the Star Tribune Editorial Board 

landmark health bill could help a stunning number of military veterans suffering from exposure to toxic burn pits, Agent Orange and other harmful agents.

“About one in five living American veterans could benefit from the PACT Act,” the Military Times estimates.

But this vital legislation can’t help anyone without Senate passage. That its fate is now in limbo after 41 Republican senators torpedoed its path through their chamber this week is a national disgrace.

The list of shame includes names from neighboring states: Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer, as well as John Thune and Mike Rounds from South Dakota. They voted no on “cloture,” a procedural hurdle that bills must clear before a floor vote. It requires 60 votes, not a simple majority.

Minnesota’s U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both voted in favor of helping sick veterans. So did Republicans Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Hoeven of North Dakota.

Comedian Jon Stewart, a passionate advocate for veterans and 9/11 responders, rained down profanities after the no vote. Veterans’ groups also erupted in anger.

“It’s shameful and a disservice to every American who wore the uniform,” Jeremy Butler, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said.

Butler is right. The bill, which the Star Tribune Editorial Board has long advocated for, would deliver needed medical care and atone for mistakes. For far too long, the Veterans Affairs (VA) bureaucracy has failed to help those who became ill after toxic exposure.

While the science takes time to definitively establish links, many veterans with health problems deserve help in the meantime but often meet rejection. “Between 2007 and 2020, VA approved disability claims related to burn-pit exposure for 2,828 veterans out of 12,582,” Stars and Stripes has reported.

The PACT Act remedies this by presuming a service connection for 23 serious medical conditions likely linked to burn pits, where waste was incinerated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Minnesota National Guard veteran Amie Muller, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2017 after serving in Iraq, was among the first to sound the alarm about burn pits.

The PACT Act also improves or adds care for older veterans exposed to Agent Orange or radiation. The bill’s cost is about $28 billion a year.

That the legislation is stalled is even more infuriating given that it had cleared the Senate in an 84-14 June vote, meaning some senators who voted no this week had previously voted yes. The bill had to come back through the Senate for procedural reasons after the House approved it 342-88 earlier this month.

It should have been an easy leap from the Senate to the president’s desk for signing. No new spending had been added, and the bill hadn’t changed significantly. There was also a window to do this before the August recess. The “no” votes recklessly squandered this opportunity.

The reasons for opposition are dubious. Wisconsin’s Johnson said in a statement that the bill contains an “unnecessary provision that opens the door for more reckless government spending.” But, oddly, stalwart budget hawks like Grassley and Hoeven didn’t see the same problem.

IAVA slammed Johnson’s reasoning as “hollow and inaccurate.” Said Butler: “He is also trying to force a change to the bill that would require sick veterans to come back to Congress to fight for continued care year after year after year.”

The no votes may also have been petty gamesmanship after leading Senate Democrats reached a new deal on climate and health legislation.

Fortunately, outrage appears to have sparked swift reconsideration, with another cloture vote potentially happening early next week. Veterans shouldn’t have to wait any longer.

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith accurately summed up the reason to act: “We have a solemn duty to take care of the men and women who served in our armed forces.”

Opinion editor’s note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.

This piece was originally published by the Star Tribune on July 29, 2022.

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