WASHINGTON — A $277 billion bill will secure Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and primary care for vets exposed to burn pit toxic substances by establishing a list of 23 cancers and respiratory illnesses presumed to be linked to the poisonous smoke.
It's called the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics or PACT Act.
The list includes melanoma, brain cancer, neck cancer, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, glioblastoma, head cancer of any type, respiratory cancer of any type, reproductive cancer of any type, gastrointestinal cancer of any type, lymphoma of any type and lymphoma cancer of any type.
"It's well past time that we addressed the impacts of toxic exposure that have been endured by members of our military," said U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas (D-NH).
The measure will help 3.5 million veterans, vets like former Army Specialist and Iraq War vet Josh Nicholson, of Virginia Beach.
"I struggle every day. I do have some issues related to burn pit exposure with my breathing and my nasal cavity and stuff," he said in an interview with 13News Now.
Veterans advocates said the bill is very much needed.
"This isn't something we're giving to veterans just because they're veterans," said Kaitlynne Hetrick of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America. "This is something they were exposed to and they deserve to be cared for."
After the bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in August, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee in early December expressed misgivings at the Department of Veterans Affairs' ability to get the job done.
"The Honoring Our Pact Act will be as massive as it is significant," said Rep. Mark Takano (D-California), Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "And given its transformative nature, it will by definition present implementation challenges and concerns."
Also voicing concern was the panel's Ranking Member Rep. Mike Bost (R-Illinois). He said: "Our veterans have waited too long for the VA to fall short now."
But, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said he has confidence in his department being able to successfully implement the act.
"We'll bring generations of new vets into VA health care and increase the health care benefits of many more and this will result in better health outcomes across the board," he said during remarks before the National Press Club in November.
McDonough also vowed the department "will not rest" until "every veteran gets the care they need and the benefits they deserve."
As of late December, nearly 190,000 veterans and survivors had submitted claims to the VA for benefits related to the PACT Act.
The department will begin processing the claims on January 1.
Veterans seeking information about their PACT Act benefits can do so at the Department of Veterans Affairs website.