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Tillis votes no, but Senate approves bill to aid vets exposed to toxic burn pits

Chuck Schumer
Patrick Semansky
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., center, speaks alongside veterans, military family members and advocates at a news conference after the Senate passed a bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The U.S. Senate gave final approval Tuesday to a bill that aims to enhance health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits while serving abroad. Veterans do not have to prove their exposure to these burn pits before getting access to care.

The military used burn pits to dispose of chemicals, plastics and other waste. The measure should make it easier for former service members to get medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The bill – the PACT Act – was approved by the Senate by a vote of 86-11. It previously passed in the House with a 256-174 margin.

North Carolina's two Republican senators split their votes on the bill to help veterans, with Richard Burr voting in favor of it, while Thom Tillis was one of 11 Republican senators to vote against it. Tillis said that veterans should have the option to go outside the VA for care.

"We need to provide the option of community care, so if someone does have a toxic exposure and they are covered under this policy then they can get to the doctor they want as quickly as possible,” Tillis said in a recorded video statement.

Tills says the bill has good intentions. But he has concerns about the ability of the Department of Veterans Affairs to carry them out.

“I'm concerned that the VA is simply not prepared to absorb the number of claims and to provide timely care,” Tillis said.

The final bill includes provisions sponsored by Tillis that would help veterans exposed to toxic chemicals in water at North Carolina’s Camp Lejune. Because of the bill, those veterans who were exposed can now sue the federal government.

“Congress has an obligation to ensure the VA can effectively and efficiently implement any comprehensive toxic exposure legislation and, unfortunately, I continue to have reservations about the Department’s ability to do so,” Tillis said a statement.

The bill now goes to President Joe Biden's desk, and he says he is looking forward to signing it into law so those veterans "finally get the benefits and comprehensive health care they earned and deserve.” Biden described the legislation as the biggest expansion of benefits for service-connected health issues in 30 years and the largest single bill ever to address exposure to burn pits.

The Senate had overwhelmingly approved the legislation once before, but the process briefly derailed last week when Republicans made a late attempt to change the bill. The GOP objections delayed final passage, infuriating veterans groups and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart.

A group of veterans and their families have been camping out at the Capitol since that vote. They had endured thunderstorms and Washington's notorious summer humidity, but they were in the galleries as senators cast their votes.

Aside from Tillis, the other 10 Republicans who voted against the measure were Mitt Romney of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Crapo of Idaho, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Mike Lee of Utah, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, James Risch of Idaho, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.

Bradley George is WUNC's AM reporter. A North Carolina native, his public radio career has taken him to Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and most recently WUSF in Tampa. While there, he reported on the COVID-19 pandemic and was part of the station's Murrow award winning coverage of the 2020 election. Along the way, he has reported for NPR, Marketplace, The Takeaway, and the BBC World Service. Bradley is a graduate of Guilford College, where he majored in Theatre and German.
Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, it's a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members.