December 6, 2023

The Senate passed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act 86 – 11. The legislation expands health care benefits for veterans suffering from various illnesses related to burn exposure.

It was widely believed that the PACT Act would pass the Senate without incident. However, that was proven wrong last week when a large group of Republicans reversed their original position on the legislation. The claim: Democrats had changed the original language that was revised earlier this summer.

The reversal caused quite a stir in the Capitol building, with comedian-turned-veteran advocate Jon Stewart at the center. He had some strong words for risk-taking Republicans. With celebrities choosing ridiculous pet designs to get behind, it’s nice to see someone rooting for veterans.

America First, or America F**ked?

Jon Stewart has been a staunch supporter of veterans’ issues for many years. This particular issue regarding the care of burn-related conditions for veterans is one that has been championed for some time. For those unfamiliar, burn pits were exactly what they sound like. holes filled with plastic water bottles, styrofoam, batteries, paint cans, tires and even ammunition.

Many of us had to work these pits with burns, and I even slept in a tent next to one for nine months. As you can imagine, this kind of inhaling and exhaling smoke is not good for your health.

Proximity to these burns has been linked to various respiratory diseases and cancers. But unfortunately, until now, the Veterans Administration (VA) did not consider toxin exposure to be service-connected.

So what does this mean for veterans suffering from debilitating respiratory illnesses or terminal cancers? It means they had a high chance of having their VA claims denied 75% of claims involved burns to get the stamp of refusal.

When he heard that Republicans had changed their minds on the bill last week, Mr. Stewart he gave them an ear:

“America’s heroes, who fought our wars, out sweating their asses, on oxygen fighting all kinds of diseases, while these moms** sit in the air conditioner away from any of it?” They don’t need to hear it. They don’t need to see it. They don’t need to understand that these are human beings.”

He finished his scolding with this dagger:

“And if this is America first, then America is crazy.”

So why the shift from Republicans?

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Change something;

The argument given by many Republicans who changed their minds last week was that Democrats had changed the original wording of the law. Are they telling the truth?

Not really. The wording in the legislation has not changed except for a section not related to the removal of veterans with burn injuries.

So again, what was the problem? It might be best to ask Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Tomei, who, in all fairness, opposed the bill previously for the same reason he states now.

Senator Toomey’s argument then and now is that an accounting categorization in the bill would:

“…allow our Democratic colleagues to go on an unrelated $400 billion spending spree.”

When asked to elaborate, he they stated awkwardly:

“That’s why they do something like this. Because it gets too deep in the weeds and confuses people too quickly. It’s not really about veterans spending, it’s about what category of government ledgers they put veterans spending in.”

Why he didn’t just explain the accounting principle he didn’t like in the bill is beyond me. But while government accounting is as interesting as watching paint dry, the concept it refers to is not that difficult to explain. I’ll put it to you.

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Government Accounting Subject

The $400 billion that Senator Toomey refers to was originally discretionary funding but changed to mandatory funding. The difference between the two is relatively simple.

Discretionary funding is set by Congress and can be changed at any time. So, if a program doesn’t appear to need as much money as the previous year, Congress can adjust funding to better fit the program’s needs.

Mandatory funding has predetermined amounts set by law that require an act of Congress to change. So the fear that Mr. Toomey and others like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas have is that if it turns out later that the VA doesn’t need all that money to help veterans with burn conditions, it will be used in other ways without oversight from a conference.

To be fair, I think that’s a valid point. However, some on the other side believe that some Republicans were just attacking for another bill.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut said:

“The less charitable explanation is this: Republicans are mad that Democrats are on the verge of passing climate change legislation and have decided to unleash their fury on vulnerable veterans.”

Hard to say for sure if Mr Murphy is right about the association with climate change legislation. But I wouldn’t be surprised if lawmakers use veterans as political pawns.

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A win for veterans?

With the passage of the PACT Act this Tuesday, veterans hope to get the care they deserve. However, those of us who have dealt with the VA remain skeptical.

Currently, the VA has 595,862 total claims pending. Of these, 164,743 are considered outstanding because they are outstanding for more than 125 days.

It is estimated that the passage of this bill will add thousands more claims over the years as approximately 3.5 million of us have been exposed to burns. VA Secretary Denis McDonough promising:

“Once the president signs this bill into law, we at the VA will implement it quickly and efficiently, providing the care these veterans need and the benefits they deserve.”

With the controversy surrounding the VA over systems that don’t work, a clinic worker in Georgia beating a 73-year-old veteran, and a VA clinic delaying care for a veteran with heart failure, I wouldn’t hold my breath. these new provisions provide relief soon.

said Jon Stewart after the final passage of the bill:

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little.”

Unfortunately, this is what those of us who have served are used to. “Supporting the troops” is a cliché often used to buy votes and look good in campaign photos.

As someone with multiple pit letters on my military medical records, I hope that someday we will get the support we deserve.

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