FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WNCN) – A North Carolina veteran exposed to toxic burn pits called it a “victory” that President Biden signed the PACT Act into law Wednesday, expanding healthcare benefits for millions of veterans. 

Pastor Mark Rowden, who served in the Army, said he has dealt with health issues for years after breathing in toxic fumes. 

“It shows that there is still hope,” Rowden said. “I think it has taken far too long. Veterans should not have had to suffer as long as they have. But, we’re grateful, and I’m grateful that now there’s a bill that says we care.” 

The bipartisan new law is aimed at making it easier for veterans exposed to toxins to get healthcare and disability payments. The Associated Press reported that even though burn pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of trash and other hazardous materials, the Veterans Affairs Department denied 70 percent of claims involving exposure to those pits. Under the law, veterans would not have to prove that certain illnesses are directly tied to the burn pits. 

The PACT Act also includes provisions that will allow veterans and others who were exposed to toxic water at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville between 1953 and 1987 to sue the government for injuries and deaths due to that contamination. 

It also calls for the VA to do studies of veterans like Rowden who served during the Gulf War about the impacts of toxic exposures. 

“It’s not going to go away. As long as we have veterans, we will have issues that I believe will always need to be dealt with,” Rowden said. 

The PACT Act passed Congress with broad bipartisan support, but Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) voted against it. 

He worked on elements of the legislation and said he supported the goals of it, but he said the Veterans Affairs Department does not have the capacity to implement it. 

“One of the things that’s wrong with Washington is they get so caught up on what they want to do, they don’t spend the time on how to do it. I’m worried that we’re making a promise that we’re not going to keep,” he said in an interview last week with WJZY. “And, I’m absolutely convinced that we’re gonna have to come back in the next Congress and do a lot of work to make sure that veterans do not have unacceptable wait times.” 

Tillis was among 11 Republicans who voted against the bill in the Senate.  

“It really matters. And, it should matter to all of North Carolinians by the vote being such as it was. To say no, that’s to me a slap in the face,” Rowden said. 

Gov. Roy Cooper (D) criticized Tillis this week in a tweet, saying the senator needs a “values check” for voting against the PACT Act and for capping the cost of insulin in the Inflation Reduction Act, that the U.S. Senate passed over the weekend.  

Tillis has since responded to Cooper.

“Roy Cooper demanded that Congress pass a reckless $740 billion tax and spending spree to fund Joe Biden’s left-wing priorities. Biden’s biggest cheerleader in NC is Roy Cooper. Grateful for the NCGA, which stands up to his liberal agenda in Raleigh and ensures that it goes nowhere.” 

The PACT Act also has become an issue in the year’s race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina). 

The Republican nominee, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, initially voted against the PACT Act but later voted for the final version that passed the House. 

Democratic candidate Cheri Beasley tweeted Wednesday that Budd “played politics with the healthcare our veterans need.” 

Budd responded to her by noting he voted for the final version and added, “The only one trying to score cheap political points off our veterans is you.”