WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden traveled to Texas on Tuesday to push for better benefits for veterans experiencing health complications after being exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Biden’s visit to Fort Worth was the first stop on his “unity agenda” tour after announcing during last week’s State of the Union speech that his administration would be emphasizing four key issues — the opioid epidemic, mental health, supporting veterans and ending cancer — that it felt Republicans and Democrats could come together to address.
"Every single solitary veteran deserves to be treated with dignity. They shouldn’t have to ask for a damn thing," the president said Tuesday.
Biden’s refocus of his domestic agenda comes as his economic and social safety net bill — known as Build Back Better — remains stalled in Congress and as his approval hovers below 50 percent ahead of the midterm elections, worrying some Democrats that the party could lose their narrow majorities in the House and Senate when voters head to the polls in November.
Speaking in a gymnasium at the Tarrant County Resource Connection, Biden outlined a number of actions his administration has taken to enhance health care for veterans, but said that "some of the most important next steps need congressional action."
The House passed a bill with bipartisan support last week that would dramatically boost health care services and disability benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some Republicans have argued the House measure is too expensive, and it is unclear whether it will be approved by the 50-50 Senate. In February, the Senate passed a much narrower bill extending how long combat veterans are guaranteed care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Both of these bills have bipartisan support. These are the bills that unite the American people. These are the bills that will deliver the necessary care for our veterans and their families,” Biden said. “We must get those bills on my desk so I can sign them immediately.”
Biden said the federal government was too slow to connect the dots between Agent Orange exposure and certain illnesses following the Vietnam War, and that he refused to make the same mistake when it comes to veterans who were exposed to burn pits in the post-9/11 wars.
"When our troops came home... too many of them were not the same," Biden said. "Numbness, dizziness, cancer."
The issue is personal for Biden. His son Beau Biden was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013. He died two years later, at age 46. Biden has said he believes Beau's cancer was linked to exposure to burn pits during his deployment.
Experts say 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.
Biden said not enough is known yet about the connection between burn pits and diseases that many veterans are now facing, but that his administration was "committed to find out everything we can."
"We're following the science in every case, but we're also not going to force veterans to suffer in limbo for decades," he said. "When the evidence doesn't give a clear answer one way or another, the decision we should favor is caring for our veterans while we continue to learn more."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden chose to visit Texas because it is home to the second-largest population of veterans in the United States, 55 percent of whom Psaki said served in areas where burn pits were used.
Psaki said the visit also allowed Biden to travel with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Reps. Colin Allred and Marc Veasey, both Texas Democrats, along with Rep. Jake Ellzey, a Texas Republican, traveled on Air Force One with Biden from Washington.
“Jake's a Republican, but I like the hell out of him,” Biden said Tuesday.
The president, who was joined by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, visited with veterans at a clinic in Fort Worth ahead of his speech.
Burn pits were used at U.S. military bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of trash, including medical waste, vehicle parts, batteries and human waste. The pits were doused in jet fuel and set on fire, spewing toxic fumes into the air.
The Department of Defense estimates that roughly 3.5 million service members could have been exposed to burn pits, but getting treatment can be difficult because veterans are required to prove a direct connection between their health complications and their military service.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has denied about 75 percent of veterans’ burn pit claims.
The Biden administration announced last year that soldiers exposed to burn pits who developed asthma, rhinitis or sinusitis within 10 years can receive disability benefits.
Biden has also directed the VA to examine links between burn pit exposure and rare forms of cancer and has voiced support for expanding the number of conditions that the agency would presume were caused by toxic exposure from burn pits.