NEW YORK – America’s military archdiocese has applauded legislation expanding federal health coverage for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits serving overseas, saying the nation “owes” it to them to ensure their care.
U.S. President Joe Biden signed the legislation “The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promises to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022” on Aug. 10.
“The Church always defends life from conception to the moment of natural death. Consequently, the decision to afford health care for veterans exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits is heartily welcomed,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio told Crux in a statement.
“The nation owes it to the men and women who defend our freedom to ensure their care when they develop illness directly related to their service,” Broglio said.
Biden’s signature enacting the law was a long-awaited answer to years of advocacy to ensure treatment for the chronic illnesses – respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, and cancer – that veterans have blamed on the burn pits. The pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of waste collected on military bases, including chemicals, plastics, medical and human waste, jet fuel, cans, rubber, and wood.
Specifically, the law makes it easier for veterans who believe they were exposed to toxins during their military services to access health care services from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). It extends the period of time post-9/11 combat veterans have to enroll in VA health care from five to ten years, and it opens a one-year open enrollment period for combat veterans who do not fall within that window.
The law also adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the VA’s list of service-connected presumptive illnesses, streamlining the process for veterans diagnosed with those illnesses to get the compensation and services they need from the VA.
The law provides more help to veterans of the Vietnam War by expanding coverage for illnesses related to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military. Per the law, veterans who served during the war in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and the Johnston Atoll will also be considered to have been exposed.
Biden signed the legislation in the East Room of the White House surrounded by veterans who were exposed to the burn pits, their families, advocates, and members of Congress. He was introduced by Danielle Robinson, the widow of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died of cancer two years ago at the age of 39 and for whom the legislation is named.
The president, a Catholic, spoke of the importance of the nation taking care of veterans.
“To the veterans and their families here today and all around the country, we can never fully thank you for your service and your sacrifice,” Biden said. “We owe you. You’re the backbone. You’re the steel. You’re the sinew. You’re the very fiber that makes this country what it is.”
Biden also spoke about his experience with the toxic burn pits in both his personal and professional life. Professionally, he spoke about his more than 20 visits to Iraq as vice president and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee where he recalled seeing the burn pits.
Personally, Biden spoke about his elder son Beau, who died of brain cancer years after deploying to Iraq. The president made a direct connection between his son’s cancer and the burn pits.
The Senate passed the law on Aug. 2 with a bipartisan 86-11 vote. The 11 Republicans who voted against the bill primarily cited financial aspects of the legislation, which will cost about $280 billion over the next decade. Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania led the opposition, saying on the Senate floor in late July that his concern about the bill had nothing to do with its purpose, but that it would create $400 billion in unrelated spending which he called a “budgetary gimmick.”
On Aug. 10, as the law was officially enacted, Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, who introduced the bill in December 2021, and fellow Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner issued a joint statement touting the “millions of veterans” that the law will benefit, adding that “Congress has a responsibility to ensure we’re providing them with the benefits they deserve.”
Broglio, too, applauded Congress and Biden for “taking action to meet this moral responsibility.”
“This legislation should help to defend the lives of those afflicted by the effects of toxic smoke,” he said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg