WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed legislation on Wednesday expanding health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
The bipartisan bill, known as the PACT Act, is the most significant expansion of veterans' health care and benefits in more than 30 years, a White House official said.
Speaking at a White House ceremony, Biden said that “veterans of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan not only faced dangers in battle — they were breathing toxic smoke from burn pits.”
Biden said he traveled to Iraq over 20 times over the course of the war, both as a senator and later as vice president, and could “actually see some of it in the air.”
“Burn pits the size of football fields, an incinerated waste of war such as tires, poisonous chemicals, jet fuel, and so much I won’t even mention,” he said. “A lot of places where our soldiers were sleeping were literally a quarter mile half mile away from it.”
Veterans who have been exposed to burn pits attended the signing ceremony along with their families, advocates and members of Congress.
Danielle Robinson and Brielle Robinson, the wife and the daughter of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson whom the PACT Act is named after, introduced Biden at the signing event. Danielle Robinson was a guest of first lady Jill Biden during the president's first State of the Union address when he called on Congress to pass burn pits legislation.
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.
“When they came home, many of the fittest and best warriors that we sent to war were not the same. Headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer,” Biden said at Wednesday's ceremony. “My son Beau was one of them.”
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.
The White House official said Biden was closely engaged with lawmakers during negotiations over the measure.
The legislation increases veterans' access to medical care and disability payments for exposure to burn pits. It also requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to presume some respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to the exposure, meaning veterans don't have to prove they got sick because of the burn pits in order to receive compensation for their illnesses. Roughly 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data and information from the Department of Defense, according to The Associated Press.
The Senate had already voted 84-14 in June to advance the bill, but 25 Republicans who voted yes reversed course when the legislation came up again. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., had been one of the Republicans holding up the bill as he demanded a vote on his amendment to add spending guardrails to ensure some of the massive package, costing $280 billion over 10 years, could not be spent on "completely unrelated programs."
Republicans eventually caved to pressure from more than 60 veterans groups — and comedian Jon Stewart — who had railed against the GOP members for days outside the Capitol.
Eligible veterans and their families and caregivers can apply for PACT Act benefits by filing a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, visiting the VA's website or calling 1-800-MyVA411.