With an assurance that President Joe Biden will quickly sign it into law, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill Tuesday that will greatly expand health care benefits for military veterans. It includes the much-anticipated Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022, which addresses water contamination at the Marine Corps base.

The Senate voted 86-11 to approve the wide-ranging Honoring Our PACT Act, igniting an emotional celebration among veterans groups that had gathered around the U.S. Capitol in anticipation.

Many of those same groups had been there protesting since July 27 when the Senate fell five votes short of advancing the bill, attracting considerable national attention.

“You did this. You never gave up, and we won,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told a crowd of veterans following the vote. “Every so often, America lives up to its ideals, and those are days that we savor.”

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Legislation Will Help Veterans Exposed to Toxins

Among its provisions, the bill will help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, used to incinerate environmental hazards and other refuse. The bill will remove the burden of proof from veterans seeking care for conditions related to burn pit exposure.

It will expand treatment eligibility and disability benefits for an estimated 3.5 million veterans, many of whom were exposed to toxins around the world while serving their country. The bill adds 23 additional diseases as presumed to be linked to military service, providing much quicker approval for benefits.

Biden, who already said he would sign the bill quickly, believes that Beau Biden, his late son who died of brain cancer, was sickened by his exposure to burn pits while serving as a National Guardsman.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the sweeping legislation – the most comprehensive ever passed for military veterans – will cost almost $300 billion over the next decade.

Passage Gives Those Harmed at Camp Lejeune Legal Recourse

The PACT Act also will allow military veterans harmed by contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to file water contamination lawsuits against the federal government.

Under the law, the U.S. government will be precluded from asserting immunity at Camp Lejeune that otherwise would be available in response to litigation.

It also overrides the long-standing state law in North Carolina that prohibits the filing of claims after 10 years. Camp Lejeune water contamination has been identified as an issue for those on base from 1953 to 1987.

An estimated 900,000 people were potentially exposed to unsafe drinking water, which was contaminated by toxins such as trichloroethylene and benzene. They included active-duty military personnel and families, National Guardsmen, Army Reservists and civilians living nearby.

PACT Act Faced Funding Disputes

Controversy surrounding the PACT Act’s passage stemmed from late-stage negotiations over exactly how the bill would be funded and provisions that went beyond helping military veterans and families.

The Senate initially passed the bill earlier this year, sending it to the House of Representatives. It passed the House with some slight revisions, requiring the Senate to vote again. 

When 25 Republican Senators rejected the changes and the bill failed to advance July 27, further negotiations ensued. Issues included more scrutiny on how to pay for the legislation and how to assist the Department of Veterans Affairs health care program from being overwhelmed by an influx of new patients.

“I have a message to the VA: You better get it right, you better deliver now,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “These veterans already have waited too long. The VA, for too long, has been part of the problem, not the solution.”

Although many injured veterans already are covered by VA benefits, some receive only limited coverage or are turned away unless they can prove their illnesses stemmed from military service.

“Passage of the PACT Act is a landmark victory for veterans of all ages, of all conflicts, and their families,” said Timothy Borland, commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Too many of our veterans have suffered over the years from effects of toxic exposure, with no medical care.”