WASHINGTON — President Biden signed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act into law Wednesday, calling it “the most significant law our nation has ever passed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service.”
As a country, “we have many obligations, but only one truly sacred obligation,” Biden said during the signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House. That obligation is “to equip those we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they come home. Today, we’re one step closer to fulfilling that sacred obligation with the bill I’m about to sign into law.” The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill’s cost at $278.5 billion over 10 years.
Biden said the country learned a “horrible lesson” from the Vietnam War, after “the harmful effects of exposure to Agent Orange took years to manifest itself in the veterans, leaving too many veterans unable to access the care they need and deserve.”
“That’s why, back in 1991, I, along with others, co-sponsored the Agent Orange Act supporting veterans exposed to toxic substances in Vietnam,” which laid the groundwork for the PACT Act, he said.
“Veterans of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan not only faced dangers in battle, they were breathing toxic smoke from burn pits,” he continued, noting that as vice president and as a senator, he had visited these war zones. “You could actually see some of it in the air — burn pits the size of football fields that incinerated wastes of war such as tires, poisonous chemicals, jet fuel, and so much more.” The veterans were eating and sleeping not far from these pits; “it was there all the time,” he added.
Biden noted that the soldiers exposed to the burn pits “were not the same” when they came home and that many suffered from headaches, numbness, dizziness, and cancer, adding that “my son, Beau, was one of them.” Beau Biden, who served in Iraq as part of the Delaware Army National Guard, died of brain cancer in May 2015 at age 46.
The president welcomed to the signing ceremony the widow and young daughter of Heath Robinson, an Ohio National Guard sergeant who died of lung cancer at 39 after being exposed to the burn pits. Robinson’s name is in the bill’s official title. Biden also welcomed comedian Jon Stewart, who lobbied for the PACT Act’s passage.
The president listed some of the law’s provisions, including expanding access to healthcare and disability benefits for veterans harmed by toxic exposures, empowering the Department of Veterans Affairs to quickly determine which veterans qualify for benefits under the bill, offering a monthly stipend of $2,000 per month to families of veterans who died due to toxic exposure, and increasing hiring and retention of healthcare workers to treat veterans.
He urged eligible veterans to promptly file their claims, saying that “the VA will move as quickly as possible to resolve your claim and get you the benefits and the care you’ve earned.” The Defense Department and the VA are “building a more comprehensive database … to track and assess exposures,” Biden added.
Biden also used the event to introduce Monica Bertagnolli, MD, his nominee to head the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Bertagnolli, who would be the first woman to head the NCI, is currently professor of surgical oncology at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Gastrointestinal Cancer and Sarcoma Disease Centers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, both in Boston.