Millions of veterans are now eligible for expanded health care access and disability benefits related to burn pit smoke and other toxic exposures after President Joe Biden signed into law Wednesday comprehensive new veterans legislation.
In a White House ceremony, Biden called the legislation one of the most important changes to veteran support policies in decades, and said it will provide needed relief to individuals who are still suffering the wounds of war years after leaving the battlefield.
“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 service,” Biden said.
The president was surrounded at the ceremony by veterans’ rights advocates, many of whom urged legislative action in recent years and, one week ago, held an around-the-clock vigil on the Capitol steps to pressure lawmakers to complete the bill. The bill eventually reached Biden’s desk after it passed in Congress on August 2 following an array of procedural moves by senators.
“By signing this historic legislation, President Biden ensured health care access to help save the lives of countless veterans affected by toxic exposure,” retired Lt. Gen Mike Linnington, CEO of Wounded Warrior Project, said after the bill’s signing. “This is without a doubt a great day for veterans across America.”
The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — will be phased in over the next few years and provide new support for veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the first Gulf War, the Vietnam War and a host of smaller deployments across the globe in between those campaigns.
It is expected to total nearly $300 billion in new spending over the next decade, a figure that caused opposition from some conservative lawmakers in recent months, and will require the Department of Veterans Affairs to hire hundreds of new workers and open several new medical sites to handle the increased workload.
“The PACT Act is the least we can do for the countless men and women … who suffer toxic exposure while serving their country,” Biden said.
At the event, VA Secretary Denis McDonough shared that the “VA stands ready to implement PACT now,” directing veterans to VA.gov/PACT to learn more.
Who benefits from the PACT Act
Portions of the PACT Act that have garnered the most attention concern illnesses that stem from burn pits that were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of waste, including office equipment, vehicle parts, medical trash and other potentially toxic items.
For years, veterans advocates have chronicled cases of respiratory illnesses and rare cancers among troops returning from those war zones, but have been unable to directly link such ailments to toxic smoke from fires because of a lack of air quality monitoring.
As a result, many have been refused disability benefits from the VA for those sicknesses, claims which, in the past, have required strict scientific evidence to support.
Under this new bill, however, that process will be amended. Any veterans who served in those areas will be granted presumptive status for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers, speeding up the process to receive benefits — which can total several thousand dollars a month.
The new bill also gives veterans who served in recent wars five more years of medical care coverage under the VA — they currently get five years — regardless of health status. Lawmakers said the extended time should help identify lingering health issues among veterans, which will ideally lead to faster and more reliable care.
Veterans of pre-Global War on Terror conflicts will also see new support under the measure.
The bill removes time restrictions placed on veterans from the first Gulf War while applying for similar toxic exposure benefits, adds hypertension and other conditions to the list of presumptive illnesses caused by Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War, and eases filing requirements for veterans exposed to radiation during various deployments around the globe.
The measure would also codify recent changes in how the VA handles future toxic exposure claims, mandating a less rigid approach to the issue. Between 2007 and 2020, over 70 percent of disability claims related to burn pits were reportedly denied by the VA. Advocates claim that fair and fast responses to future war zone dangers could prevent a similar health care and disability fight.
“It’s just surreal,” Rosie Lopez Torres, founder of the nonprofit Burn Pits 360, told Military Times following the signing. Torres’ husband is a former service member who suffers from constrictive bronchitis.
“If you have symptoms, don’t doubt yourself. ... This is real.”
Another requirement directs the VA to launch new studies on veteran health trends and a five-year strategic plan on toxic exposure research that could provide the insight and evidence advocates have been searching for.
“We have every reason to believe that we’re going to see an expansion of the presumptive conditions,” McDonough told Military Times following the ceremony.
A presidential connection
Biden made burn pits a point of emphasis in his State of the Union speech earlier this year, saying Congress was long overdue to address the health problems of the youngest generation of veterans.
He echoed those comments again during the signing Wednesday.
“This new law matters,” Biden said. “It matters a great deal because these conditions have already taken such a toll on so many veterans and their families.”
That rings true for military spouse Danielle Robinson, who joined the president on stage at the event and was a guest at the State of the Union. Robinson’s late husband Heath, from where the bill receives its official name, died at 39 from terminal stage four lung cancer that was attributed to toxic exposure from his deployment to Iraq as a combat medic.
Biden’s late son Beau, the former attorney general of Delaware who served with the Delaware Army National Guard in Iraq, died in 2015 from a rare brain cancer. The president has indicated several times that he believes the illness may have been caused by exposure to burn pits, but no conclusive link has been made due to the same lack of scientific data that has frustrated many other military families.
The Department of Defense estimates nearly 3.5 million troops who served in recent wars may have endured enough smoke exposure to cause health problems. That figure, combined with help for other generations of veterans included in the PACT Act, means that as many as one in five veterans living in America today could see some benefit from the legislation in coming years.
Much has changed since 2008, a launching point for Military Times reporting on the harmful effects of burn pits, in terms of holding the military and government accountable for toxic exposure injuries.
While advocates say there is much more to be done, the president considered the bill’s signing a major step in the right direction.
“I was gonna get this done come hell or high water,” Biden said.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media