President Biden on Wednesday signed into law long-awaited legislation to expand health care access for military veterans suffering from exposure to toxic burn pits.
“This is the most significant law our nation has ever passed,” Biden said at a signing ceremony at the White House, where he was joined by lawmakers, veterans and activists like Jon Stewart, who long fought to get the law passed.
“I was gonna get this done come hell or high water,” Biden said.
The pits were commonly used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to incinerate waste, with troops often using jet fuel as an accelerant.
Biden has said he believes his son Beau, who died in 2015 of brain cancer at age 46, may have been exposed to one while serving in Iraq.
The president was joined at the signing ceremony by Danielle and Brielle Robinson, the wife and daughter of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died after exposure to burn pits and for whom the bill is named.
"I'm in awe of your family's courage," Biden told them.
Last week, the Senate voted 86-11 to pass the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, with 11 Republican senators voting against the measure.
That vote came days after 41 Senate Republicans voted to delay its passage in order to cut some of the mandatory spending contained in the bill — a move that angered activists like Stewart, who tore into the GOP lawmakers at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
"So ain't this a bitch," Stewart said. "America's heroes, who fought in our wars, outside sweating their asses off with oxygen, while these motherf***ers sit in the air conditioning, walled off from any of it. They don't have to hear it. They don't have to see it. They don't have to understand that these are human beings.
"I'm used to the hypocrisy," he continued. "I'm used to the cowardice … I'm used to all of it. But I'm not used to the cruelty."
In his remarks Wednesday, Biden thanked Stewart. The former “Daily Show” host has spent the past few years advocating on behalf of military veterans.
“You refused to let anybody forget, and we owe you big,” Biden said to Stewart, who received a standing ovation.
In 2021, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, introduced bipartisan legislation that would streamline the Veterans Health Administration’s review process to recognize toxic exposure as a cost of war.
It passed the House in March by a vote of 256-174, with 34 Republicans joining all House Democrats in voting for it.
In June, the Senate voted 84-14 in favor of the bipartisan legislation, but because of a parliamentary glitch involving a tax provision, it was sent back to the House, where it easily passed.
"This is a monumental moment," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said Wednesday. "It's our job as a nation to provide toxic-exposed veterans and their survivors with the care and benefits they deserve. But for too long that did not happen."
McDonough said those veterans who may have been exposed to toxins can apply for PACT Act-related benefits now by filing a claim at VA.gov/pact.
"By signing the PACT Act into law, President Biden will empower VA to deliver the care that millions of toxic-exposed veterans need," McDonough said.