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Lankford votes against expansion of health care and benefits for veterans exposed to toxins

Sen. James Lankford
At the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) addresses members of the Oklahoma National Guard deployed to Washington, D.C., to defend the Capitol and other buildings following the insurrection carried out by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma was one of just 14 senators, all Republicans, to vote Thursday against a bipartisan bill that would expand access to health care treatment and disability benefits for veterans exposed to toxins.

The "Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act" was co-authored by Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. It passed in the Senate on a vote of 84-14.

At a cost of roughly $280 billion over ten years, the bill would expand the window of eligibility for veterans' care through the Department of Veterans Affairs and institute a presumption that certain illnesses were the cause of exposure to toxins, rather than require veterans to conclusively prove service-related exposure was the cause before granting disability benefits. The Associated Press reports upwards of 70% of those claims are currently denied.

"This legislation will provide comprehensive relief for all generations of veterans, from Agent Orange to the 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans exposed to burn pits during their deployments," Moran said in a statement. "Our nation’s veterans and their families will no longer have to fear being turned away from the VA for illnesses related to toxic-exposures.”

Lankford explained his opposition to the bill by citing a belief it would lead to worse health outcomes for veterans who rely on the VA.

"Those that have been directly affected by toxic exposure are going to ultimately be disadvantaged by this bill due to the increase in claims and long wait times to receive care," Lankford's office said in a statement.

"We cannot worsen the VA backlog and make it even harder for Oklahoma veterans to get the care they need," Lankford said.

Oklahoma's senior senator, meanwhile, voted for and celebrated passage of the bill.

"I am proud to support legislation paving the way for those who have sacrificed for this country to receive the care they deserve," Sen. Jim Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

"This legislation, when enacted into law, will expand Veteran Affairs health care eligibility to post-9/11 combat veterans and create a framework to ensure continued care for veterans suffering from illnesses related to toxic exposure," Inhofe said. "I commend Sens. Moran and Tester for their leadership on this important issue."

The bill now proceeds to the House of Representatives, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday it would be considered soon. Democratic President Joe Biden indicated Thursday he would sign it once it reaches his desk.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.