WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will sign legislation Wednesday to expand health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
The bipartisan bill, known as the PACT Act, is the most significant expansion of veterans’ health care and benefits in more than 30 years, a White House official said.
“Sometimes military service can result in increased health risks for our veterans, and some injuries and illnesses like asthma, cancer, and others can take years to manifest,” the White House said in a release. “These realities can make it difficult for veterans to establish a direct connection between their service and disabilities resulting from military environmental exposures such as burn pits — a necessary step to ensure they receive the health care they earned.”
Veterans who have been exposed to burn pits are expected to attend the signing ceremony along with their families, advocates and members of Congress, the official said.
Danielle Robinson and Brielle Robinson, the wife and the daughter of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson whom the PACT Act is named after, will introduce Biden at the signing event, the official said. Danielle Robinson was a guest of first lady Jill Biden during the president’s first State of the Union address when he called on Congress to pass burn pits legislation.
The White House official said Biden was closely engaged with lawmakers during negotiations over the measure.
The legislation increases veterans’ access to medical care and disability payments for exposure to burn pits. It also requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to presume some respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to the exposure, meaning veterans don’t have to prove they got sick because of the burn pits in order to receive compensation for their illnesses. Roughly 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data and information from the Department of Defense, according to The Associated Press.
The Senate had already voted 84-14 in June to advance the bill, but 25 Republicans who voted yes reversed course when the legislation came up again. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., had been one of the Republicans holding up the bill as he demanded a vote on his amendment to add spending guardrails to ensure some of the massive package, costing $280 billion over 10 years, could not be spent on “completely unrelated programs.”
Republicans eventually caved to pressure from more than 60 veterans groups — and comedian Jon Stewart — who had railed against the GOP members for days outside the Capitol.
Eligible veterans and their families and caregivers can apply for PACT Act benefits by filing a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, visiting the VA’s website or calling 1-800-MyVA411.
Rebecca Shabad is a politics reporter for NBC News based in Washington.
Associated Press contributed.
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