TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Lonnie Kilpatrick’s troubling story of missed diagnoses and denied benefits outlived him, but he is credited with nudging a toxic exposure bill one step closer to approval.
“I went from having osteoarthritis to having metastasized bone cancer all over my body,” Kilpatrick said in a tearful 2018 interview. “How the hell do they do that?”
Kilpatrick died a short time after the interview and became the namesake for the Lonnie Kilpatrick Central Pacific Relief Act. The elements of that were incorporated into the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022.
What is also known as the Pact Act has now been passed by the U.S. Senate and is expected to be approved by the House and then get signed into law by President Joe Biden.
Kilpatrick’s final wish was, “Make it count,” as in make his death count.
Kilpatrick’s widow Sheila said “it’s about time” when asked about the Senate passing the bill.
“I thank God and all those who fought so long and hard for this to finally pass,” Kilpatrick said. “I know when Lonnie said to our youngest daughter, make it count, that we would always fight the good fight.”
John Wells, executive director of Military Veterans Advocacy who has pushed for expanded coverage for veterans for years, credited Kilpatrick with enduring the long fight to “make it count” and get the bill onto the books.
“It was because of him that we were able to get the success that we’re having now with the Pact Act,” Wells said.
The Pact Act comes with a projected 10-year, $283 billion budget. As early as October, the law will add an estimated 3.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans to toxic exposure coverage.
The law also expands coverage to service members and their families exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. Twenty-three additional conditions caused by burn pit exposure would be covered under the law that also added six new Agent Orange exposure areas.
Guam, where Kilpatrick served, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, American Samoa and Johnston Atol are the new locations where VA will concede exposure to the herbicide that was sprayed during the Vietnam War.
Kilpatrick was not the only bay area veteran who went to Congress for help.
New Port Richey Navy veteran Lauren Price had pushed for more comprehensive burn pit coverage after the VA denied her claims. She testified before Congress in 2018.
“What they’re going to get is a big nasty bowl of the truth,” Price told 8 on Your Side before she went to Washington.
Last May after his wife died, her husband Jim offered tearful testimony to Congress about the importance of better coverage.
“Care is the priority because compensation benefits do not help someone who is dead,” Price said.
Price said expanded coverage is welcome, but he added despite the bill’s huge price tag for the bill, it needed to go farther.
One concern Price has involves improving overall veteran healthcare to help identify toxic exposure symptoms earlier.
“Healthcare and early identification is a critical piece that seems to be overlooked within the legislation,” Price said. “Early identification of many cancers and diseases can be the difference between life and death, or the difference in quality of life the veteran during the limited time they have left for those who are terminal.”
The bill is an important step in the right direction, according to Wells, but he also acknowledged there is more work to do.
“This is a major battle, but it ain’t the war,” Wells said. “We’re going to continue to fight as long as there are any veterans that should be covered. That’s not covered.”
A House vote is expected as early as Wednesday.