SALT LAKE CITY | President Joe Biden will mark the first anniversary of a law that is delivering the largest expansion of veterans benefits in decades on Thursday by showcasing the bipartisan PACT Act in the company of Utah’s Republican Gov. Spencer Cox.
The Democratic president and the GOP governor will visit the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center to promote a law that is intended to improve health care and disability compensation for exposure to toxic substances, such as burn pits that were used to dispose of trash on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 348,000 veterans have had their claims approved in the last year, and about 111,000 who are believed to have toxic exposure have enrolled in health care.
The president is winding up a three-state western swing in which he has been combining events focused on achievements from his first term with campaign fundraisers aimed at helping him win a second. Both Biden and Cox have stressed the need to find common ground by reaching across party lines.
The issue of veterans’ care is also personal for Biden. He’s long believed that his eldest son’s fatal brain cancer was caused by exposure to burn pits while he served overseas in the Delaware National Guard. At a fundraiser in Albuquerque on Tuesday, Biden said his son Beau had died “because of Iraq.”
The expansion of benefits has pleased advocates but tested the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been racing to add staff to handle the influx of applications. The backlog of disability claims, meaning they’ve lingered for at least four months without a decision, is expected to grow from about 266,000 now to 730,000 in April.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough told The Associated Press in a recent interview that the department is ahead of its internal projections and is working to process veterans’ claims faster.
“Now that we’ve urged them to come in and file their claims, we want them to continue to have a good experience with us by getting a timely response back to those claims,” he said. “That’s the biggest challenge.”
Although there’s no deadline to apply, anyone who files a claim or simply signals the intent to do so by Monday could collect payments retroactive to last year if the claim is approved.
The original cutoff date was Wednesday, but officials extended it because of technical difficulties with the VA website.
Biden was also scheduled to hold a reelection fundraiser Thursday before returning to Washington.
His visit to Utah was shadowed by violence. Only hours before Biden arrived in the state on Wednesday, FBI agents fatally shot a man suspected of threatening to kill Biden as they tried to serve a search warrant at his home in Provo, about an hour’s drive south of Salt Lake City. The man had posted online Monday that he had heard Biden was coming to Utah and made fresh threats against the president, according to court documents.
A White House official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the matter, said Biden was briefed after the shooting.
Utah is Biden’s third and final stop on his trip this week. He started in Arizona, where he declared a new national monument near the Grand Canyon on Tuesday.
His next stop was Albuquerque, N.M., which included a fundraiser and a visit to the future site of a factory for building wind towers. The facility had previously produced Solo cups and plastics, but has been shuttered in recent years.
Biden is trying to convince voters that his economic policies, which include tax credits for clean energy, have resulted in new jobs and lower inflation as he asks for a second term in office.