Wrapping up a week-long push to encourage veterans to sign up for new health care benefits and screenings, President Joe Biden on Friday spoke about his “sacred” commitment to get veterans treatment if they were exposed to toxic waste while serving overseas.
Biden spoke at the Major Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center – named for his son who died from brain cancer in 2015. The president has often said he believes Beau’s cancer is linked to his time serving in Iraq, when he was exposed to burn pits, or areas devoted to open-air combustion of trash.
The Delaware event on Friday was focused on highlighting the new health benefits in the PACT Act, the bipartisan legislation that became law in August and devoted billions of dollars in funding to expand health benefits for post-9/11 combat veterans and broaden eligibility for toxic exposure coverage.
“As Americans, we only have one sacred obligation,” Biden said. “We must prepare those we send to war and care for them and their families when they come home from war. I mean that.”
He noted that veterans previously had to “prove” their exposure to burn pits, which changed with the PACT Act.
“Because why should the burden be on the victim?” the president said fiercely.
Eligible veterans can visit va.gov/PACT to take advantage, Biden said.
Biden credited the family of Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson – whom the bill is named for – for their push to get the expanded health benefits into federal law.
“This is a family that suffered a great loss but turned their pain into purpose so other families wouldn't have to experience the same thing,” he said. “That's courage. That's character in my view. And that's who we are. That's what defines us.”
Over the last week, the Department of Veteran Affairs has held over 90 events across the country to encourage veterans to sign up for health care, get screened for toxic exposure, and submit a claim if they are experiencing a toxic exposure related condition.
Burn pits were commonly used for waste disposal in Afghanistan and Iraq, meaning millions of service members were likely exposed over the years.
Smoke from these pits could have short- and long-term health effects, according to a VA fact sheet, especially for those who were exposed for long periods.
Waste products in burn pits included things like chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions, petroleum, plastics, Styrofoam and more.
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the last Vietnam veteran serving in Congress, spoke on Friday about how the new health effort is
“To put it bluntly, this bill is going to save lives. A lot of them,” he said. “For [the president] and for me, the issues before us today are deeply personal ones.”
For his personal note, Biden said riding by the reserve center named for Beau always leaves him with “a little bit of a lump in my throat,” saying the first lady Jill Biden warned him “not to get emotional” on Friday.
So far, more than 185,000 veterans have applied for the PACT Act benefits, and more than 730,000 have gotten toxic exposure screenings.
Nearly 39% of those screened reported concern about toxic exposure, according to the VA.
The VA has also started processing claims for terminally ill veterans, they announced this week, instead of waiting to phase in the benefits through 2026, as written in the PACT Act legislation.
About 2,500 claims were filed so far by self-identified terminally ill veterans.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough cited the president’s call for a “sacred obligation” to veterans.
“We're forever in your debt. And we're fighting like hell to serve you as well as you have served us,” he said.
Citing some concerns from veterans, McDonough said they should not have to hire a lawyer or pay someone to help apply for benefits. It’s free, and you are “32 times more likely” to have your benefits increase than decrease, he explained.
“We will not rest until every single veteran and survivor knows about this new law, understands what it means for them and gets the care and benefits they’ve earned,” he said.