President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed a bill to expand Medicare benefits for millions of people Veterans who suffered toxic burn pits during their military service.
The bill is a major bipartisan victory for Congress and addresses an issue that concerns the president. Biden said he believes there may be a connection between the brain cancer that killed his 46-year-old son, Beau, and the burns Beau suffered during his military service.
Incineration pits were commonly used to incinerate waste—including waste, munitions, hazardous materials, and chemical compounds—at military sites throughout Iraq and Afghanistan until approximately 2010. Dangerous toxins in the air that, when exposed, may have caused short- and long-term health conditions, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Toxic smoke, thick with poison, spreads through the air and reaches the lungs of our soldiers. When they returned home, many of the best and fittest warriors we had sent to war were not the same. Headache, numbness, dizziness, cancer. “My son Beau was one of them,” Biden said.
Beau Biden was an Iraq War veteran who served as Delaware attorney general and died of brain cancer in 2015.
The bill adds conditions related to burns and exposure to toxins, including high blood pressure, to the list of illnesses the VA has experienced or exacerbated during military service, removing the burden on veterans to prove that their exposure to toxic substances led to these conditions. It can provide coverage for up to 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxins.
“I would have done it in hell or high water,” Biden said, calling the legislation “the most important law our nation has ever passed to help the millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances while on duty.”
“We have many obligations and only one sacred obligation: to equip those we send into harm’s way and care for them and their families when they return home,” the president said.
Biden was introduced on Wednesday by Danielle Robinson, wife of Sgt. Heath Robinson, after whom the legislation is named. Her daughter, Brill Robinson, was by her side. Danielle Robinson was a guest of First Lady Jill Biden in Biden’s State of the Union address when he called on Congress to pass the stinging bill.
“For us and for many of you in the room, if not all of you, it’s personal. Personal to many people like Danielle and Brielle. Staff Sergeant Heath Robinson, only 39. They held his hand for the last time at age 39,” Biden said.
Biden thanked comedian and political activist Jon Stewart, who has been a prominent advocate for veterans on the issue and was at the White House to sign the bill.
“You refused to let anyone forget. You refused to let them forget. And we owe you, big man. We owe you a lot,” Biden said.
Home Secretary Deb Haaland, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dennis McDonough and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mallorcas were scheduled to attend the signing of the law at the White House.
The White House is hailing the legislation, known as the PACT Act, as the largest expansion of benefits and services for veterans exposed to toxins in more than 30 years.
Congress passed the bipartisan bill last week after Republicans, who had previously supported the measure, temporarily blocked the bill from progressing as they sought to add cost-control amendments to the package. The surprise move by the Republicans sparked a swift backlash among the veterans and veterans’ groups, and advocates of the measure protested the steps of the US Capitol for several days.
“Alcohol geek. Certified web scholar. Travel aficionado. Subtly charming twitter fanatic.”