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Senate overwhelmingly passes burn pits bill

The US Senate has overwhelmingly voted to pass the burn pits bill. The PACT Act was passed with an 82 to 11 vote.

The bill will now head to President Joe Biden's desk for signature.

“Today is a victorious day for our nation’s veterans. In memory of Cathedral City veteran Jennifer Kepner, I have fought tooth and nail to get veterans the presumptive benefits and care they need, earned, and deserve,” said Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz. “With the Honoring our PACT Act now on its way to the President’s desk, we will finally recognize Jennifer’s vision for her fellow veterans. I urge President Biden to swiftly sign the PACT Act into law! Our veterans have waited for too long.”

Ruiz is the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Burn Pits Caucus. Over the past few years, he has helped lead the charge in Congress to address the military’s use of toxic burn pits since the death of Jennifer Kepner, a local veteran who blamed her cancer on her exposure to burn pits.

The Senate originally passed the bill last month with an 84 to 14 vote, but it required a do-over for a technical fix. But the process derailed when Republicans made a late attempt to change another aspect of the bill last week and blocked it from advancing.

The abrupt delay outraged veterans groups and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart. It also placed GOP senators in the uncomfortable position of delaying the top legislative priority of service organizations this session of Congress.

Local Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz expressed his outrage over the Senate's vote, speaking with News Channel 3's Peter Daut.

The bill contains two major components for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans who served near burn pits will get 10 years — rather than five — of enhanced health care coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs upon their separation from the military.

Second, the legislation directs the VA to presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.

Roughly 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data and information from the Defense Department.

The military used burn pits to dispose of such things as chemicals, cans, tires, plastics and medical and human waste.

Local Veteran Jennifer Kepner

One of the key provisions that Congressman Ruiz included in the bill was the Jennifer Kepner HOPE Act.

Jennifer Kepner was an Air Force medic exposed to toxic burn pits which caused her to develop pancreatic cancer.

In Sept. 2017, Kepner spoke with News Channel 3's John White about burn pits and how she believed they caused her pancreatic cancer.

Kepner lost her battle with cancer in Oct. 2017. She was just 39 years old, leaving behind a husband and two children.

"She and her family faced roadblocks to getting the care that she needed from the (Veterans Affairs)," Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Coachella, said in his speech on the House floor urging passage of the legislation. "At her kitchen table, she asked me to lead this fight and I promised her that I would."

The House of Representatives originally passed the bill back in March, on what would've been Kepner's 44th birthday.

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Jesus Reyes

Associated Press

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