President Joe Biden will call for expanded benefits for victims of burn pit smoke and other military toxic exposure in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, according to senior administration officials.
That includes new presumptive benefits status for veterans with rare respiratory cancers believed linked to the toxins from waste pit fires in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The move comes as the House considers sweeping — and expensive — legislation that could provide new aid to millions of veterans suffering from a range of respiratory illnesses and cancers. Biden will press lawmakers to find compromise on the issue in coming months to ensure that those veterans are receiving the help they need.
The president will also announce in the speech more mental health resources to veterans in distress and more financial support for individuals facing significant debt.
Including the veterans issues in the State of the Union — one of the most widely watched and debated events of the year for the White House — gives the topics a high-profile spotlight which could spur new national conversation on the country’s responsibilities to provide care for veterans after their military service.
While national security is a frequent staple of the annual address, post-war care for veterans often only gets a brief mention.
Last year, Biden referenced improvements to veterans care in a single sentence of his speech to Congress. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump mentioned veterans twice, but both times in reference to the economy and not specifically issues tied to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In November, White House officials announced plans to dramatically revamp how to evaluate and approve veterans disability claims related to toxic exposure injuries.
Since then, White House and VA officials have spent months reviewing scientific and medical evidence related to exposure to fine particulate matter found in military burn pits.
Based on those findings, officials will announce plans for a new rule to add presumptive service connection veterans suffering from squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea and lung, adenosquamous carcinoma and several other related illnesses.
Granting veterans presumptive status allows them to bypass complicated and time-consuming paperwork directly linking their injuries to military service. That speeds up delivery of some medical and financial benefits, a move which advocates say can limit stress and anxiety in already wounded veterans.
Last August, VA for the first time granted presumptive benefit status to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for a limited number of respiratory illnesses. Department officials said that since then, they have granted more than 16,500 new claims related to burn pit injuries, totaling $36 million in retroactive benefits.
Past estimates from the department have put the number of individuals exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits during the last 20 years at more than 3.5 million.
White House officials have said repeatedly in the past that Biden has taken a personal interest in improving veterans medical care and benefits. His son, Beau, served in Iraq with the Delaware Army National Guard and died in 2015 from a rare brain cancer which may have been linked to his own exposure to burn pit smoke overseas.
On mental health, Biden is expected to speak broadly about the need to provide medical resources and treatment for all Americans in distress, and to invest in more mental health professionals across the country.
In a fact sheet related ahead of the speech, White House officials specifically mentioned the need to improve veterans’ access to same-day mental health care, since “veterans are at higher risk for mental health and substance use challenges than the general population.”
According to VA research, about 17 veterans a day die as a result of suicide, a rate that has remained largely unchanged over the last decade despite significant prevention efforts across multiple presidenital administrations.
Biden also plans to unveil new rules to simplify the process for veterans seeking medical debt forgiveness. The new program, set to go into effect in the next three to four months, will include new income thresholds for receiving relief and a new online platform for individuals to apply.
White House officials did not say how much of the Tuesday night speech will be focused on veterans topics. Biden is also expected to devote significant time in the address to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and his own domestic plans for infrastructure improvements.
The speech is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.