Veterans frustrated as Senate fails to pass “PACT Act”
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A bill that would expand healthcare access for millions of veterans and allow families exposed to toxic water at Camp Lejeune to sue the government has stalled in the Senate.
The “Honoring Our PACT Act” had passed the U.S. House and needed one more vote of approval from the Senate this week before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law. Since the Senate passed the bill with a bipartisan 84-14 vote last month, many expected it to pass again since only minor changes had been made.
The bill includes the “Camp Lejeune Justice Act,” which would allow families who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987 and later suffered an illness linked to toxic water contamination to sue the government for damages.
Veterans across the country were shocked, however, when 41 republicans removed their support on the bill Wednesday, making the future of the legislation unclear.
“Where it feels like a direct betrayal to the veteran community is that this passed the Senate with an 84-plus-something bipartisan majority no less than a month ago,” said Rob Rens, a former U.S. Marine who lives in southeastern North Carolina.
Rens has spent years advocating for the veteran community, knowing the challenges vets have dealt with after toxic burn bit exposure.
“I’ve had friends that I served with that had extremely rare forms of cancer in their 30′s and they’re gone,” said Rens “What did their families get out of that? What have they gotten from it? Next to nothing.”
Comedian and advocate Jon Stewart came to Wilmington in April asking North Carolina’s Senators to support the bill. Both Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, however, have voted against the legislation.
“So all these folks here that have been working for a decade or more to help veterans who are sick and dying, finally had an exhale moment, finally got to breathe easy for a moment, and that’s what they pulled out from them,” Stewart said.
Supporters of the bill, veterans, and their families worry that the longer the bill takes to become law, the more people could suffer.
“In the meantime, every minute of delay is a minute that a veteran who fought for this country and their families and their caregivers suffer and die,” said Stewart. “We’ve lost people through this fight.”
As far as what comes next in the fight for expanded healthcare benefits, Rens believes more veterans will start running for office to make their voices heard.
“That’s what this feels like, is that nobody is coming to help us,” said Rens. “And so, we’re gonna have to help ourselves in that.”
Rens says for the thousands of families still suffering with the aftermath of toxic water exposure at Camp Lejeune, the years of suffering will continue.
“I know a lot of them up in that area that are still in the Jacksonville area, and around the country felt like finally they were gonna get some relief from this. And in that, you know, they were going to be able to be made whole again, or to have, you know, some of their health costs covered by this act,” said Rens.
Senator Tillis released a statement on the bill last month.
Congress is expected to leave for a month-long recess at the end of next week.
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