Biden urges veterans to apply for PACT Act’s expanded health care benefits
Health Care

Biden urges veterans to apply for PACT Act’s expanded health care benefits

At the Delaware National Guard facility named for his late son, a somber President Biden on Friday urged veterans to take advantage of new health care opportunities under legislation he signed in August. 

The law, known as the PACT Act, helps veterans get screened for exposure to toxins. Those include Agent Orange, which was used for deforestation during the Vietnam War, and burn pits, where trash was destroyed on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

TOPSHOT – US President Joe Biden speaks with Ray Firmani, a 101-year-old World War II veteran, during a town hall with veterans and veteran survivors in New Castle, Delaware, on December 16, 2022.

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

“There’s no generation in American history more than this past generation that have been deployed more, that have given more than the generation represented by the people we’re gonna be looking at and honoring today,” the president said of veterans who served in the Middle East. “Nobody has been in a situation where they show up for one deployment, then two and three and four and sometimes five and six.”

The administration has been hosting scores of events around the country to draw attention to the new benefits. More than 730,000 veterans have already received screenings, according to the White House. 

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis Richard McDonough on Friday said they will “not rest until every single veteran and survivor knows about this new law, understand what it means for them, and get the care and benefits they earned.”

Beau Biden, the president’s elder son, served as a major in the Delaware National Guard. He died of brain cancer in 2015, and the president has suggested that exposure to burn pits on his base in Iraq may have been the cause. The president noted that several service members who served with his son were present Friday. 

“This is personal to them, and it’s personal to all of us,” Mr. Biden said Friday. “It’s not unique to me and my family.”

While the president isn’t certain burn pits caused his son’s brain cancer, in his 2022 State of the Union address, the president pledged to “find out everything we can” and to protect veterans suffering diseases linked to their service. 

The legislation, the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT Act), was passed by Congress after years of advocacy by veterans. Before the law, about three-quarters of disability claims involving burn pit exposure were denied by the government.

“Finally, Congress did the right thing,” said Delaware’s Democratic Sen. Tom Carper, the only current member of the Senate who served in Vietnam, during Friday’s event. 

The president said he “made it real clear to the United States Congress that if they didn’t pass this damn bill, I was going to go on a holy war. “

In addition to the screenings, the law directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to assume that some respiratory illnesses and cancers are connected to burn pits. This allows veterans to receive disability benefits without needing to prove direct causation.

The president urged all veterans of recent wars to visit to get screened. 

In January, the Veterans Affairs Department will start processing all benefits claims related to the PACT Act. The VA has already started processing claims from terminally ill veterans and has said it will expedite processing claims filed by veterans with cancer so they can receive care and benefits quickly. 

Because the law expands eligibility to an estimated 3.5 million more veterans, the VA has hired more than 2,000 employees to help administer benefits and plans to hire more in the coming months. 

“Now as more veterans and survivors apply for their PACT Act benefits, we do expect an increase to the inventory and the backlog in the short term,” Joshua Jacobs, a senior official from the VA, told members of Congress during testimony on Capitol Hill this month. 

Beau Biden died as a result of his cancer in May 2015. Sunday also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the president’s first wife, Neilia, and their young daughter, Naomi, who were killed in a vehicle accident in 1972.