Biden signs ‘burn pits’ law widening US veterans’ health benefits

The law significantly expands healthcare and disability benefits for millions of US veterans exposed to toxins.

US comedian Jon Stewart embraces the widow of a veteran who died of cancer at a ceremony celebrating the passage of the PACT Act at the White House on August 10. The bill is one of the largest expansions of veteran healthcare in decades [Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

United States President Joe Biden has signed legislation expanding healthcare for millions of US veterans who were exposed to toxins during their service – including smoke emanating from “burn pits”, contaminated water and Agent Orange used in the Vietnam war.

Biden signed the bill, known as the PACT Act, on Wednesday. The law is expected to provide more than $280bn over a 10-year period for expanded healthcare and disability benefits for about 3.5 million impacted veterans. The pits were used to burn waste such as plastic tyres, batteries, explosives, human feces and chemicals in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Today, we’re one step closer to fulfilling that sacred obligation with the bill I’m about to sign into law,” Biden said at a signing ceremony on Wednesday. “This is the most significant law our nation has ever passed to help millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their military services.”

The signing concluded a dramatic political effort, which saw veterans camp outside of Congress in punishing heat and sustained pressure that eventually won over enough Republicans to pass the bill.

More than two dozen Republicans had refused to pass the law, even after voting for near-identical legislation in June. They eventually reversed course and passed the bill last week after an outpouring of anger from veterans. It is considered one of the largest expansions of veteran healthcare in decades.

For Biden, the passage of the bill was deeply personal: he believes his late son Beau’s fatal brain cancer could have been caused by a burn pit from when he served in Iraq.

“The toxic smoke thick with poison [was] spreading through the air and into the lungs of our troops,” Biden said Wednesday. “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.”

Burn pits were used for years in Iraq and Afghanistan, but 70 percent of disability claims involving exposure were denied by the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).

“For too long, too many veterans who got sick while fighting for our country had to fight for their care here at home,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said at the ceremony on Wednesday.

The legislation ends that burden of proof, directing officials to operate under the assumption that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers are linked to burn-pit exposure, easing the process of obtaining disability benefits.

Other services will also be expanded, including benefits for those who were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange during the US war in Vietnam. The law also doubles the time veterans who have served since September 11 have to sign up for VA healthcare, from five years to 10 years.

The bill passed after decades of advocacy, including by the US comedian Jon Stewart, who Biden thanked by name at Wednesday’s ceremony.

The fate of the legislation was temporarily thrown into flux when Republicans blocked the bill in the US Senate on the day it was expected to pass without controversy.

Due to a technicality, the Senate had been asked to vote on the bill again after passing it by wide margins in June. Instead, late last month, veterans who had gathered at the Capitol watched in disbelief as Republicans shot it down.

“All the veterans were down there because they were expecting to celebrate,” said Jeremy Butler, head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “And then they were absolutely stabbed in the back.”

Republicans claimed they had concerns about how the law would be funded, but Democrats accused them of a vindictive effort to sink legislation that would be seen as a win for the Biden administration.

Numerous veterans camped out in the stifling summer heat, pressuring the Senate to pass the bill. Biden said he wanted to join them, but was isolated due to a COVID-19 infection and instead spoke with demonstrators over a video call.

The bill passed with strong support several days later.

Veterans who watched the bill pass were overwhelmed with emotion. “Every single person I was with was bawling. Just bawling,” said Matt Zeller, a former US Army captain who was among the demonstrators. “I cried for a solid five minutes.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies