Washington — President Biden on Wednesday will sign into law legislation that expands health care benefits for veterans who developed illnesses because of their exposure to toxic substances from burn pits on U.S. military bases during their service.
The bill, called the PACT Act and named for Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, marks the largest expansion of health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxins in more than 30 years and is expected to extend eligibility for medical care to roughly 3.5 million veterans potentially impacted by toxic exposure.
The legislation cleared the Senate with broad bipartisan support last week, just days after GOP senators blocked the measure from advancing over objections over how the benefits are paid for. The House approved the measure last month.
Mr. Biden has been an advocate of the bill and issued a call-to-action during his first State of the Union address in March for Congress to assist veterans experiencing enduring health issues after exposure to the burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Robinson’s widow, Danielle, was a guest of first lady Dr. Jill Biden for the address.
The president has speculated that exposure to toxic substances from burn pits added to health problems for his late son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015. Beau Biden, a major in the Army National Guard, deployed to Iraq for a year in 2009.
In addition to expanding access to health care services, the measure removes the burden on certain veterans and their loved ones to prove service connection if diagnosed with one of 23 specific conditions, including 11 respiratory-related conditions, several forms of cancer and brain cancers.
While the legislation had support from Republicans and Democrats alike, its passage appeared in jeopardy after Republicans pulled their backing in a procedural vote. GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania objected to language in the bill that would move $400 billion in preexisting discretionary veterans spending to make it mandatory, but his attempt to change the measure failed.
The blockade by Republicans brought veterans to the steps of the Senate to protest their opposition, and after days of braving the elements, the measure cleared with opposition from 11 members.