JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A Jacksonville widow, whose husband died after serving in the Marines, is applauding the newly signed PACT Act, which expands health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxins during their time in service.
President Biden on Wednesday signed into law the Promises to Address Comprehensive Toxics or PACT Act. Something long overdue, according to military families in the Jacksonville area.
“If this was around the time when Eric was diagnosed, you know, maybe he would still be here now because they would have been able to give him the care that he needed. You know?" Michelle James, a widow to a Marine veteran, said.
Michelle James lost her husband in 2019 to colon cancer, he was only 53
He was a marine stationed at Camp Lejuene and one of many military members exposed to toxic water while stationed at the North Carolina military base.
“My husband wasn’t entitled to benefits, he didn’t get any help from the VA at all." said James.
The Promises to Address Comprehensive Toxics or PACT Act will help families just like James' who have miliatary loved ones or are veterans themselves and were exposed to toxins from open air burn pits, a combination of hazardous materials that were regularly doused in jet fuel, during their time in service. The PACT Act also includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.
It creates a list of 23 cancers and respiratory illnesses that will now be presumed to be linked to toxin exposure, meaning veterans don't have to prove they got sick because of the toxins in order to receive compensation.
Post-9/11 combat veterans will now have ten years to enroll in VA health care, instead of five. The bill also directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to develop a plan for toxic exposure research.
The white house says it’s the biggest expansion to VA health benefits in over 30 years and leaders with the Five Star Veterans Center are applauding the move that could help families right here in Jacksonville.
"I know several people... that passed with unusual cancers, not not having cancer in their family… it is very good news for family members," Francis Loving, CEO Five Star Veterans Center and a retired military colonel, said. "It was long overdue."
James also believes that now the bill is passed into law, more military families will learn about potential exposures, and hopefully reach out for help.
"We can actually now, so we can sue for compensation. We can claim wrongful death, and those that are still going through it can claim personal injury. So on that score, that's why it's a victory for us." James said.
Veterans or families who believe they may qualify for benefits can reach out to the VA to start the process.