On Aug. 10, 2022, President Joe Biden signed the SFC Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act, which guarantees care and benefits for veterans who suffer ill effects of exposure to burn pits and other toxic substances while serving our nation.
The passage of the PACT Act is a big deal for veterans, family support members, and veterans service organizations, like Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), that advocated diligently for years to get this groundbreaking legislation passed and help warriors across the country.
The PACT Act:
Now that it is officially law, veterans may be wondering what comes next and what it means for them and their families.
“The first step is to contact a VA-accredited representative to help guide them through the process of getting the benefits that are now afforded by the PACT Act,” said WWP Veterans Benefits Training Specialist Daniel Fletcher.
The WWP Benefits Services team is available to help warriors and family support members navigate the process of filing for benefits under the new law and help them understand how the legislation will affect the process and their eligibility. The most important thing to note is that veterans who served during certain eras, including Vietnam, Desert Storm, and post-9/11, were deployed to certain locations, and were diagnosed with one or more of the presumptive conditions, are now eligible to qualify for free VA health care and disability compensation, even if they were denied previously.
“What the bill does is open up the door for entitlement to health care, even if they don't yet have a service-connected condition,” said Tim Velasquez, WWP veterans benefits training specialist. “Those new possibilities for health care under this bill are incredible as far as the opportunities they open to veterans who may not have had that door open to them before.”
Veterans and survivors can file claims for all of the presumptive conditions outlined in the PACT Act immediately.
“Presumption is what I would call a lower burden of proof,” Daniel said. “Typically, a veteran would have to prove that they have a current chronic condition and that there was an event or injury in service that caused that condition and then prove a link between those things. With a presumptive service connection, mostly what they need to have is service in a certain location, at a certain time, and a diagnosis of one of those presumptive disabilities. So, the presumption satisfies the requirement.”
One of the biggest impacts of the PACT Act allows qualifying veterans access to VA health care for free. Currently, veterans enrolled in VA health with a disability rating of less than 50% (and no special eligibility factors) receive free care only for service-connected disabilities. They can use VA health care for other ailments and injuries that are not service connected but must pay a co-pay.
“What this bill does, which is great, is it really opens up the door to pre- and post-9/11 combat veterans who served in areas of exposure,” Tim said. “The simple fact that they served in areas of known exposure that the bill now recognizes as areas of toxic hazardous exposure opens the door for eligibility. They can now say, ‘I want health care. I’m now eligible for health care under this bill, simply because I served in these areas at this time.’”
Veterans enrolled in VA health care will receive a toxic exposure screening and a follow-up screening every five years. Those not yet enrolled, but who are eligible, will be able to enroll and receive the screening.
Some veterans may have filed for VA care and benefits for one of the presumptive conditions prior to passage of the PACT Act but were denied. If that is the case, veterans should seek assistance to refile the claim.
“If the veteran has filed a claim for one of these identified conditions in the past and was previously denied, it is considered a form of appeal, called a supplemental claim, and it's basically a request to reopen that previously denied condition,” Daniel said.
VA will be reaching out to veterans who were previously denied for one of the presumptive conditions about refiling claims, but veterans do not have to wait until being contacted by VA before filing their supplemental claim.
“We want to encourage them to refile their claim, but we also need to educate them,” Tim said. “We want to reach as many people as we can to let them know their options. You do have options. The veteran must refile and that's why we encourage them to work with a VSO, look at their options, and file the claim the right way.”
If a veteran now qualifies for disability compensation under the PACT Act, payments will not be retroactive to date of filing the initial claim if filed before the PACT Act passed, but could become effective as of Aug. 10, 2022, when the bill was signed into law.
Unfortunately, given the nature of some of the presumptive conditions, including multiple cancers, some toxic-exposed veterans may not have survived to see this legislation pass. In this case, family members may now be eligible for benefits, including Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), which is a monthly payment for an eligible surviving spouse, dependent children, or parents.
“There is the possibility for survivor benefits,” Daniel said. “However, if the veteran is still living and, unfortunately, has a terminal illness, they should apply now because it establishes the service connection, which is required for their survivor benefits. If their loved one passed away from one of these conditions, even if they filed a claim for survivor benefits and were denied in the past, they should reapply.”
VA will be contacting survivors who were previously denied benefits and may be newly eligible under the PACT Act, but survivors can refile before being contacted by VA.
“There’s a constant point of communication between our service officers and the warriors and just reassuring them that our service officers are monitoring their claims regularly, providing them updates, and advocating on their behalf,” Tim said. “What happens to the veterans impacts us [at Wounded Warrior Project] and what we do impacts them.”
Veterans who served in areas of known exposure are encouraged to complete VA’s Burn Pit Registry. Completing the Burn Pit Registry does not create a claim for benefits but will facilitate more extensive research on how exposure to burn pits is affecting or has affected veterans who were exposed.
“This is a huge day,” Tim said of Aug. 10, 2022, when the PACT Act became law. “It's a huge day for veterans. It's a huge day for us. It's a huge day for VA. And the real work begins now.”
Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.570.7910
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