Biden highlights veterans' mental health crisis and celebrates Pact Act anniversary

US President says more veterans are 'getting the care they deserve' a year after act expanded government health care for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans

Brielle Robinson, whose father died from a burn pit-related illness, holds a doll with her father's photograph during a news conference on the need to pass the Pact Act before its passing in 2022. Reuters
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US President Joe Biden on Thursday advocated breaking the stigma over mental illness in the military, as he celebrated the anniversary of the expansion of veterans' health care under the Pact Act.

“You're taught to be tough, stand alone, to do what you need to do [in the military],” Mr Biden said.

“It's also hard when you're having problems and you think you have a mental health problem to ask for help. It's really hard.

“But there's no difference between having a mental health problem and breaking your arm or your leg.”

Mr Biden noted that 17 US veterans die by suicide every day.

“Even one veteran dying of suicide, particularly because he couldn't get help immediately, is one too many.”

As part of the emphasis on veterans' mental health care, he outlined the importance of combating the homelessness rate, emphasised the need for job training for the transition to civilian life and celebrated his recent executive order on how the military addresses sexual crimes.

Mr Biden addressed the veteran healthcare crisis during an anniversary celebration of the piece of legislation that significantly expanded care access for former and current US soldiers.

The Sgt First Class Heath Robinson Honouring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or “Pact Act”, passed Congress last year after facing some Republican opposition in the Senate.

It was named after veteran Heath Robinson, who died of a rare cancer two years ago after exposure to toxic burn pits on deployment in Iraq.

Mr Biden celebrated progress under the law, which expands Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare eligibility to post-9/11 combat veterans.

That coverage expansion includes more than 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans, and adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the department's list of service presumptions.

“Veterans are getting the care they deserve,” Mr Biden said at the event, hosted in the western state of Utah.

“We have a moral obligation … and I'm here today to spread the word so every veteran or surviving family member knows how to access the benefits of this law.”

Shereef Elnahal, undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, praised the success of the law and the expanded VA healthcare he says it has allowed.

“We've now screened more than four million veterans across the country for toxic exposure,” Dr Elnahal told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last month.

“It's a standard questionnaire happening in every primary care clinic, increasingly more types of clinics mental health and speciality care.”

In a memo published on Thursday, the VA reported it had approved 91 per cent of a little more than 360,000 Pact Act-related claims.

“Thanks to President Biden, millions of veterans who fought for our country are now getting health care and compensation for the conditions that followed them home from war,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement.

“We’re proud that so many veterans and survivors have already benefited from the Pact Act, but this is just the beginning: we won’t rest until every veteran and every survivor gets the VA health care and benefits they deserve.”

Updated: August 10, 2023, 7:45 PM