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Veterans affected by toxic exposure can apply for health care benefits under PACT Act

Veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan or other toxins could more easily qualify for disability benefits under the PACT Act.
Department of Veterans Affairs
Veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan or other toxins could more easily qualify for disability benefits under the PACT Act.

The law expands health care benefits for veterans who may have developed illnesses after toxic exposure during their service. The VA can start processing most claims on Jan. 1.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is urging vets to take advantage of a new law that expands health care opportunities to millions of service members who may have been exposed to toxins.

President Joe Biden signed what’s known as the PACT Act earlier this year. The law adds 23 presumptive conditions including various respiratory issues and cancers that the VA will automatically assume are service-related instead of veterans having to prove it to get disability benefits.

Veterans still need to meet the service requirements for each condition. These conditions could be connected to toxic exposures including Agent Orange, a chemical used during the Vietnam War, and burn pits, where the military destroyed waste in Iraq and Afghanistan, among others.

The full name of the law is The Sergeant First Class (SFC) Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act.

Under the law, VA health workers will also now conduct toxic exposure screenings for every veteran enrolled in the system

“There’s veterans out there who may not know that they’ve been impacted,” said VA press secretary Terrence Hayes. “This screening is going to allow a conversation between a provider and patient, and ultimately it could potentially lead to further testing, diagnosis, a treatment plan and, of course, benefits in the hands of these amazing heroes.”

In addition to the initial screening, the law entitles vets to follow-up assessments at least once every five years. Veterans who are not enrolled in VA health care and who meet eligibility requirements will have an opportunity to enroll and receive the screening.

A massive omnibus bill passed by the Senate on Thursday includes $5 billion to implement the PACT Act. The bill must still be approved by the House and signed by Biden.

How to get help

Hayes encourages veterans to sign up for care and file benefits claims as soon as possible.

The VA can start processing most of the claims on Jan. 1, but the department already started prioritizing veterans with terminal illnesses.

It also hired more employees to handle the anticipated influx of claims. The VA estimates 3.5 million veterans could be eligible for assistance under the PACT Act.

Hayes stresses it's free to file a claim and advises vets to be wary of anyone charging fees for assistance. He encourages people visit their local vet center, VA medical center or a veteran services organization in the community for help.

The VA has a webpage with more information about the PACT Act and how to apply for benefits. You can also call 800-698-2411 (TTY: 711).

For Gulf War era and post-9/11 veterans

These cancers are now presumptive:

  • Brain cancer
  • Gastrointestinal cancer of any type
  • Glioblastoma
  • Head cancer of any type
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lymphatic cancer of any type
  • Lymphoma of any type
  • Melanoma
  • Neck cancer of any type
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Reproductive cancer of any type
  • Respiratory (breathing-related) cancer of any type

These illnesses are now presumptive:

  • Asthma that was diagnosed after service
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Chronic rhinitis
  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
  • Emphysema
  • Granulomatous disease
  • Interstitial lung disease (ILD)
  • Pleuritis
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sarcoidosis

New Agent Orange presumptive conditions for Vietnam veterans:

  • High blood pressure (also called hypertension)
  • Monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS)

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Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.