Gov. Laura Kelly wants Congress to pass comprehensive legislation addressing all veterans who were exposed to toxins from burn pits or otherwise while they served in the U.S. military. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly is calling on the U.S. Senate to approve a bill that would provide health care for veterans exposed to toxins and provide critical training to providers.
The Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins (PACT) Act acknowledges that veterans who served in certain locations were exposed to burn pits, and lists presumptive conditions related to the pits and a framework for the Department of Veterans Affairs to grant new conditions for all toxic exposures. In addition, the bill allows for training necessary to better diagnose and treat veterans exposed to toxins.
“As Commander in Chief of the Kansas National Guard, I am calling on the U.S. Senate to pass the Honoring our PACT Act — and on President Biden to sign it — because it is essential that we care for the troops who have done so much to protect us,” Kelly said Thursday. “For far too long, our veterans have been left without the benefits and services they deserve because Congress failed to act.”
The PACT Act is the product of an agreement between U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, and Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat. The bill has bipartisan support in the Senate. Earlier this year, a previous iteration of the measure that lacked bipartisan support passed the U.S. House 256 to 174.
The bill is named after Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, a member of the Ohio National Guard who died in 2020 from toxic exposure during his military service in Kosovo and Iraq. In addition to the health care elements, the act would expand VA health care eligibility to Post-9/11 combat veterans, including more than 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxins.
Kristina Keenan, associate director of the national legislative service for Veterans of Foreign Wars, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in March that addressing the needs of these sick and disabled veterans was overdue.
“It would address the still lingering conditions and unrecognized locations of Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange,” Keenan said. “It would take care of atomic veterans and veterans from the K2 base in Uzbekistan. It has a significant focus on burn pits and improving the VA disability claims process.”
Keenan and other supporters of the bill say the health care expansion is critical to toxic-exposed veterans who require treatment for current conditions or preventative care. Currently, she said Vietnam-era veterans have access to VA health care even if they do not have disabilities connected to their service, and those who served in the Persian Gulf War and Post-9/11 conflicts do not.
“Delaying access to medical care will only create a larger and potentially more costly problem in the future as some veterans will require significant care as their conditions worsen,” Keenan said.
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat who voted in favor of the act, said these veterans should not have to prove or earn the right to support and care.
“I’m joining the millions of toxic-exposed veterans who have struggled in silence, who have felt ignored and unheard, and whose families have grieved alongside them to call on the Senate: Pass the Honoring our PACT Act and deliver the care and the accountability that our veterans and service members deserve,” Davids said.
Kansas military leadership echoed Davids and Kelly.
“Our Service Members answer the call and are there when the nation asks them to serve,” said Kansas Adjutant General Major General David Weishaar. “I believe it is crucial that, as a nation, we take care of those veterans upon their return home.”
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