President Biden on Wednesday signed into law new health care benefits for veterans exposed to hazardous toxins in the line of duty, calling it “the most significant law our nation has ever passed.”
Mr. Biden, who called on Congress to pass the legislation during his first State of the Union, said the issue was personal.
“Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not only faced dangers in battle,” he said. “They were breathing toxic smoke from burn pits. When they came home, many of the fittest and best warriors that we sent to war were not the same. Headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer.
“My son Beau was one of them,” he said.
The president’s elder son died from brain cancer in 2015 at age 46. Mr. Biden has linked his son’s death to burn pits and Beau Biden worked in the military near burn pits, but the link is unproven.
“President Biden has played a vital role in influencing the passage of the PACT Act,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noting the president’s first State of the Union in which he memorialized his son and called on Congress to pass the bill.
“IAVA expresses our sincere gratitude to the president for his dedication and commitment to ensuring that the concerns of veterans have finally been heard,” Mr. Butler said.
The new law expands access to health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for millions who served near burn pits. It also directs the VA to presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.
Roughly 70% of disability claims related to burn-pit exposure are denied by the VA due to a lack of evidence, scientific data and information from the Defense Department.
The military used burn pits to dispose of things such as chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, and medical and human waste.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War-era veterans and survivors also stand to benefit from the legislation. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a presumptive disease associated with Agent Orange exposure.
The law expands eligibility for VA health care for veterans exposed to toxins and adds new presumptive conditions for burn pits and other toxic exposures.
The Congressional Budget Office projected that about 600,000 of 1.6 million living Vietnam veterans would be eligible for increased compensation, though only about half would have severe enough diagnoses to warrant more compensation.
The law also requires the VA to provide toxic exposure screenings to every veteran enrolled in VA health care.
Mr. Biden said the U.S. is taking “one step closer” toward fulfilling “its truly sacred obligation to equip those we send into harm’s way and to care for them and their families when they come home.”
The president was joined at the signing ceremony by the surviving wife and daughter of the bill’s namesake, Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson.
Robinson died in 2020 of lung cancer believed to be tied to burn-pit exposure during his deployment to Iraq.
The Senate gave final approval to the bill in a 86-11 vote after a brief stalemate when several GOP lawmakers switched their vote at the last minute over concerns that the bill, as written, included a “budget gimmick” that would allow spending under the bill to be moved from discretionary to mandatory spending.
The move enraged supporters of the legislation, including powerful veterans organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the Wounded Warrior Project.
Veterans and advocates who fought for the legislation stood an around-the-clock “fire watch” outside of the U.S. Capitol until the lawmakers relented and the bill finally passed nearly a week later.
Several of those who championed the bill were present at Wednesday’s signing, including comedian and advocate for veterans Jon Stewart who rallied alongside the veterans on Capitol Hill last week.
“We owe you big,” Mr. Biden said.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.