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News / Health / Health Wire

VA has approved 1 million claims under landmark toxic exposure law, but more veterans and survivors are eligible

By Orion Donovan Smith, The Spokesman-Review
Published: June 1, 2024, 6:06am

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In less than two years since Congress passed a landmark bill to expand benefits to veterans who were exposed to toxins in the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs said last week that it passed a milestone of 1 million claims approved under the new law, including more than 22,500 in Washington state and nearly 6,500 in Idaho.

From the herbicide known as Agent Orange in Vietnam to the burn pits used to destroy waste in Afghanistan and Iraq, American troops have been exposed to toxic substances whose effects often don’t appear until years later. The historic expansion of coverage — dubbed the PACT Act, for “Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics” — makes more veterans and their families eligible for VA health care and benefits.

“We learned a terrible lesson after Vietnam as those harmful effects of Agent Orange took years to manifest and left too many veterans without the care they deserved,” President Joe Biden told a crowd in New Hampshire on Tuesday, “because they had to prove that every illness they had was a consequence of Agent Orange, which was often too hard to do.”

Congress didn’t apply that lesson until two decades after the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. forces continued a practice used in Kosovo and the Gulf War, disposing of waste by dousing it with jet fuel and setting it ablaze in open-air pits. After years of pressure from veterans who struggled to prove that cases of cancer and other illnesses were linked to their military service, lawmakers passed the PACT Act, and Biden signed it into law in August 2022.

Ron Smith, a veteran service officer with the American Legion in Spokane, said the publicity around the new law has prompted more veterans to come forward, even those who were eligible before the PACT Act was enacted. That awareness has been the biggest impact of the law so far, Smith added, “And I think it also has let people know that they care, instead of just leaving them hanging.”

The law expands and extends eligibility for veterans of the wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq — and for the surviving family members of those who have died. It classifies more conditions as “presumptive,” meaning that veterans no longer bear the burden of proving that those conditions are linked to military service.

It also requires the department to screen every veteran enrolled in VA health care for toxic exposure. More than 5 million veterans have received those screenings, according to an interactive VA dashboard that tracks the law’s implementation. Claims under the PACT Act have been approved at a rate of 75%, with an average processing time of 166 days.

“The PACT Act has helped us bring VA to vets, rather than making them change their lives to come to us, transforming how we build trust with vets,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters Monday. “Thanks to the largest outreach campaign in VA history, vets and survivors submitted over 2.4 million claims in 2023, an all-time record and 39% more than the year prior. And we’re processing those claims at the fastest rate in history.”

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Veterans and survivors have one year to complete and file a claim after starting one, which creates an “intent to file” date, potentially making benefits retroactive to that date. Those who notified the VA of their intent to file a claim by Aug. 14, 2023, are eligible to have their benefits backdated to the day Biden signed the law, Aug. 10, 2022.

Josh Jacobs, the VA’s under secretary for benefits and a former aide to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told reporters Wednesday that the department had begun reaching out by email, text and phone calls to everyone who submitted an “intent to file” between June and August to encourage them to finalize their claims before the one-year deadline.

“The milestone we achieved is an important reflection of all the work that’s been done. We’ve been able to grant 1 million PACT Act-related claims and that energizes people, but it’s also a reminder that there’s a lot more work to do,” Jacobs said. “One of my main takeaways is we have to keep our foot on the gas.”

The VA’s mandate, reflected in the department’s mission statement, is “to care for those who have served in our nation’s military and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.” The 1 million approvals include claims submitted by both veterans and survivors, such as the spouses and children of veterans who have died.

“It is a tremendous milestone,” said Candace Wheeler, director of government and legislative affairs at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. “It’s really been an all-out effort to make sure we’re reaching veterans and survivors that may now have benefits under the PACT Act.”

Getting veterans enrolled in VA health care earlier can save lives, she said. In 2023, only about 3% of the people who came to TAPS for support had lost a loved one in the military due to hostile action, while 34% of those losses were due to illness and another 31% to suicide.

Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops and veterans have died by suicide at a rate four times higher than those who lost their lives in combat, a 2021 Brown University study found.

“The PACT Act is actually bringing in people that didn’t necessarily consider themselves a survivor,” Wheeler said. “They may have lost their loved one due to a rare form of cancer and at the time it wasn’t deemed service connected. Now it is.”

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and former CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the PACT Act was “way overdue” and cautioned that there is much more work to be done to get VA benefits and health care for every eligible veteran.

“A million is great, but there’s a long way to go toward success, and the VA and especially every White House have a long and extensive history of spiking the ball before they cross the goal line,” Rieckhoff said.

“It’s very much like giving yourself credit for pulling the car out of the ditch.”

Veterans and their families can find information about the PACT Act and filing a claim at va.gov/pact or by calling (800) 698-2411.