PACT Act expands veterans’ healthcare eligibility

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Local VA database crashes after a heap of citizens apply for benefits through PACT, which extended healthcare eligibility to veterans exposed to toxic substances

CENTRAL VALLEY – After a slew of veterans applied for the 2022 PACT Act, the window to apply for its benefits has been widened by a few more days.

The PACT Act (Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins) was signed by President Biden on Aug. 10, 2022. The law expanded healthcare and benefits to veterans nationwide who were exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances.

The initial deadline to apply for benefits was Aug. 10; however, because of the number of veterans applying for retroactive benefits, the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) extended the deadline to Aug. 14 at 11:59 p.m. Fresno County Veterans Service Officer Kyle Pennington said so many veterans were applying for PACT online that a local VA database crashed.

“It’s been wild,” Pennington said. “There were 30 people waiting outside the office yesterday (Aug. 9) when I arrived for work.”

In 2022, the VA screened one million veterans for toxic exposure. Nearly 40% of those screened said they believe they had been exposed to airborne toxins. According to a VA press release on April 26, over 500,000 veterans and survivors have filed claims for PACT benefits.

In addition to extending eligibility to millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic exposure, the act also expanded the VA’s list of presumptive illnesses and extended the enrollment period for healthcare for post-9/11 combat veterans from five to 10 years following discharge.

Congressman Jim Costa, 21st District, sponsored the bill along with fellow California Democrat Mark Takano, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (Committee), and Tim Kaine (D-VA).

“This law expands VA healthcare benefits to nearly 3.5 million veterans nationwide who were exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances,” Costa said in a press release. “I want to make sure no veteran goes without getting the benefits and care they earned and deserve.”

The act was named after Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, who served with the Ohio National Guard. He served in Iraq and Kosovo. Robinson died in 2020 from toxic exposure as a result of his service.

According to a press release from the Committee, the claims process can be problematic for veterans filing for benefits related to toxic substances. The VA streamlines this process by categorizing some illnesses as being presumptive.

The VA defines any illness or condition it assumes to have been caused by military service as presumptive. PACT added 23 burn pit and toxic-related conditions to the VA’s list of presumptive illnesses.

According to an Aug. 10, 2022 fact sheet issued by the White House, this list includes 11 respiratory-related conditions along with several forms of cancer, including reproductive cancers, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer and brain cancers. The fact sheet notes that survivors of veterans who died due to one of these conditions may also be eligible for benefits.

In addition, PACT expanded coverage for Agent Orange-related illnesses and added Thailand, Cambodia, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll as locations for Agent Orange exposure. Agent Orange was an herbicide mixture used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, and contained a chemical contaminant called dioxin.

According to the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit organization focusing on humanistic studies, the impact of the dioxin contaminant continues to be harmful in present time, as dioxin is a highly toxic and persistent organic pollutant that is linked to cancers, diabetes, birth defects and other disabilities.

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