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The Senate has passed a historic expansion of care for veterans

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The biggest expansion of care for veterans, possibly since the creation of the VA, passed the U.S. Senate this morning and is almost certain to become law. It's called the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or the PACT Act. It will give health care and benefits to millions of veterans exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and also to substances like Agent Orange in Vietnam and radioactive waste during the Cold War. NPR's veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence is on the line with details about this historic legislation. Hi, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hi.

PFEIFFER: What exactly will this act do when it becomes law? And why is it such a big deal?

LAWRENCE: Well, it's massive. The estimated cost is almost $280 billion over a decade. And it gives care to millions of veterans by giving them what's called presumption. Up until now, 70% or 80% of vets who were trying to get VA coverage for toxic exposures were rejected by the VA because they couldn't prove that that smoke from that burn pit caused that cancer or other illness that they had. Now, if they're sick and they were there, they get VA coverage. It's presumed. Jen Burch is an Afghanistan vet, and she got lung disease that she fought for years to get the VA to cover. She says many others didn't make it to today.

JEN BURCH: We look at the veterans that have died - you know, Dr. Kate Thomas, Wesley Black, Heath Robinson. You know, they all died young and they don't get to watch their kids grow up. But maybe because of their efforts and their courage to share their stories, it's going to give the chance of these veterans who are parents to watch their children grow up.

PFEIFFER: And, Quil, as we said, this covers multiple generations of vets, earlier generations exposed to many types of toxins.

LAWRENCE: Right. I spoke yesterday with a Navy vet, Chuck Yunker. His ship was off the coast of Vietnam in 1970. And whether the sailors on that ship got VA coverage for their Agent Orange-related diseases depended on whether they were in seawater or river water, on that sort of technicality. And now the VA will just have to accept it. If you were there, you're covered. I spoke to Gary Pulis. He was an Army private in 1979 clearing up radioactive material in the South Pacific with his bare hands. And vets like him have been fighting for 30, for 40, 50 years to get recognition. And there are many other kinds of exposures included in this bill. It's comprehensive.

PFEIFFER: You said $280 billion. That's hugely expensive. In this partisan climate, it somehow passed the Senate 84-14. How did that happen?

LAWRENCE: Well, all of the veterans organizations had this as their top priority to push it through. And the Veterans Affairs Committee in the House, and particularly in the Senate, are places where there's still this sort of comity and bipartisanship. But there were also these sick vets and their families who started pushing this a dozen years ago. And it has to be said, in the last few years, it was - there was a big celebrity push that came from comedian Jon Stewart, who took up this issue. And he was outside the Capitol today. He got emotional praising the families who had pushed for this law even after their veteran had died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JON STEWART: Advocating for a cause is - it's a lovely thing to do, but to do that in your grief, when you know that it's not going to help your loved one, but that's not what matters to you - is that no one goes through what you went through.

LAWRENCE: And the VA still has to take some time to implement this. That will take a while. But today veterans and veterans' advocates are - they're celebrating.

PFEIFFER: NPR's veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence, thank you.

LAWRENCE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.