President Joe Biden speaks during a signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he signed a bill that expands healthcare access for veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 10 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed legislation that will help veterans who were exposed to toxins during their time in the U.S. Armed Forces -- a bill that needed a second vote to get past Republicans.
The PACT Act, which is considered the most significant expansion of veterans' benefits and services in decades, was passed by Congress last week.
The White House said in a statement Wednesday that the legislation will expand vets' healthcare services to ensure they can access high-quality screenings and services related to exposure to toxic burn pits.
The new law will allow more veterans to enroll in VA healthcare without having to demonstrate a service-connected disability and codify an updated process for evaluating and determining presumption of toxic exposure and service connection for various chronic conditions. The change lets the Veterans Affairs Administration to make faster decisions on crucial exposure issues.
The law will also remove the need for certain veterans and their survivors to prove a service connection to their illnesses if they're diagnosed with one of 23 specific conditions.
"To the veterans here today and all around the country, we can never fully thank you for your service and your sacrifice," Biden said during the ceremony at the White House. "You're the backbone, you're the steel, the sinew. You're the very fiber that makes this country what it is."
The PACT Act also requires that veterans in VA healthcare be regularly screened for toxic exposure and will streamline resources by enhancing the processing of claims and increasing the VA workforce. The bill includes money to authorize 31 major medical health clinics and research facilities in 19 states for veterans' care.
During Wednesday's ceremony, Biden spoke directly to military families and a child whose father died from toxic exposure.
"I know you miss your daddy, but he's with you all the time," he said. "He's going to whisper in your ear lots of times when you have hard decisions to make. You're going to wonder what daddy wants you to do and he's gonna be there."
Veterans have long pushed for the new assistance and expected the legislation to be approved when it came up for a vote in the Senate last month. However, Senate Republicans blocked the bill -- apparently out of frustration over Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's abrupt change of heart about supporting the Inflation Reduction Act, which Republicans opposed.
That move drew quick and heavy backlash against Republicans, including a harsh rebuke from comedian and longtime veterans advocate Jon Stewart, who told reporters outside the Capitol, "If this is America first, America is f----d."
When the bill came up for a second time in the Senate, it passed by a vote of 86-11.
Biden said at the signing ceremony that he was determined to get the bill passed "come hell or high water" -- and thanked Stewart for drawing attention to the problem the bill intends to solve.
Activist and comedian John Stewart hugs Sri Benson, whose wife, Katie, was an Army medic who died from toxic exposure, during a signing ceremony for the PACT Act on Wednesday at the White House. The bill expands healthcare benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo