WASHINGTON — Calling it among "the most significant” recent laws to be enacted, President Joe Biden on Friday touted legislation he signed in August that expanded health care benefits for veterans suffering from exposure to toxic burn pits.
The new law, dubbed the PACT Act, "empowers the VA to move more quickly to determine if a veteran qualifies for the benefits of the law,” Biden said at a National Guard and Reserve center in New Castle, Del., named after his late son, Beau Biden. “And the benefits are real, they’re real benefits like exposure screening. … It means new facilities, new research, more health care workers at VA hospitals.”
“For families who suffer the ultimate loss, that means potential access to life insurance, tuition benefits, home loan assistance, monthly stipends — and it’s real, it’s not small,” he said.
The issue is personal for Biden, who has said he believes his son's brain cancer was linked to exposure to burn pits during his deployment to Iraq in 2008. In his remarks, Biden said he remembered when Beau, who was diagnosed in 2013, called him to say he had collapsed while running.
Since Biden signed the law, more than 185,000 veterans have applied for benefits, the White House said. More than 730,000 veterans have also received screenings for toxic exposure, with nearly 39% reporting concern of exposure.
The Department of Veterans Affairs began processing claims for terminally ill veterans Monday, with about 2,500 claims from veterans self-identifying as such, the White House said. The government will begin processing claims for all other veterans in January.
The law gives veterans exposed to burn pits access to more medical care and disability payments. It also requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to presume some lung illnesses and cancers were related to exposure, meaning veterans don’t have to prove they got sick from the burn pits to receive compensation. Previously, about 70% of disability claims related to burn pits were denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data and information from the Department of Defense, the Associated Press reported.
Biden said he has directed the Department of Veterans Affairs to treat the 23 presumptive conditions in the law immediately. “I’m urging all veterans of these decades of war to enroll in the VA health care to get screened for toxic exposure and to promptly file your claim,” he said.
Biden spoke about the danger posed by the pits, saying “it’s a hole between eight and 10 feet high, 12 feet deep, the size of a football field, great big rectangle, and every damn ugly thing in our world is burned in it.”
Many of the best-trained, fittest warriors in the world have come home to the U.S. from deployments “with headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer,” he said.
Experts have said that while it is difficult to draw a definitive link between burn pit exposure and certain health problems like cancer and asthma, long-term exposure to toxic smoke can lead to serious health issues.