Today, Congress answered President Biden’s call to strengthen health care and benefits for American veterans and their survivors by passing the bipartisan Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Fight Act. against toxic substances (PACT). The PACT Act is the most significant expansion of benefits and services for veterans exposed to toxic substances in more than 30 years.
In his first State of the Union address, President Biden called on Congress to send a bill to his office that would comprehensively address toxic exposures that have affected veterans, as well as their families and friends. caregivers, and provide them with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve. Thanks to the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees, the PACT Act does just that.
President Biden believes our nation has a sacred obligation to properly prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way – and to care for them and their families when they return home. Sometimes military service can bring increased health risks to our veterans, and some injuries and illnesses like asthma, cancer, and others can take years to manifest. These realities can make it difficult for veterans to draw a direct link between their service and disabilities resulting from military environmental exposures such as burning fireplaces – a necessary step to ensure they receive the health care they deserve. ‘they won.
President Biden has made it clear that supporting those in uniform is a commitment that unites all Americans – Democrats, Republicans and Independents – and why he has made supporting our veterans a central part of his unity agenda. And, the legislation supports President Biden’s revived Cancer Moonshot to help end cancer as we know it.
President Biden looks forward to signing the bipartisan PACT Act, serving America’s veterans and their families, and demonstrating that we can – and will – unite where we agree to do great things for our country.
The PACT Act: Providing Essential Health Care and Other Benefits to Veterans
Named for Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, a decorated combat medic who died of a rare form of lung cancer, this landmark legislation will help provide more timely benefits and services to more than 5 million people. veterans of all generations who may have been impacted by toxic exposures while serving our country. Danielle Robinson, the widow of Sergeant First Class Robinson, was the First Lady’s guest at President Biden’s first State of the Union address when he called on Congress to pass legislation to ensure that veterans devastated by toxic exposures – like her husband – finally get the health care and benefits they deserve.
The PACT law will:
- To ensure that veterans can receive high-quality health care screenings and services related to potential toxic exposures, the PACT Act expands access to VA health care services for veterans exposed during their military service. For veterans after 9/11, the bill extends the time period they have to enroll in VA health care from five to ten years after discharge. For veterans who fall outside this window, the bill also creates a one-year open enrollment period. These extensions mean more veterans can enroll in VA health care without having to demonstrate a service-related disability.
- The PACT Act codifies the new VA process for assessing and determining presumptive exposure and service connection for various chronic conditions when evidence of military environmental exposure and associated health risks is strong overall but difficult to prove on an individual basis. PACT requires VA to seek an independent evaluation of this process as well as external input on the conditions it will review using this framework. The new process is evidence-based, transparent, and enables VA to make faster policy decisions on critical exposure issues. This new process has already fundamentally changed the way VA makes decisions about environmental exposures and ensures that more veterans have access to the care they need.
- The legislation removes the requirement for certain veterans and their survivors to prove their service connection if they are diagnosed with one of 23 specific conditions. This greatly reduces the amount of paperwork and the need for exams that veterans diagnosed with any of these conditions must go through before they can access health care and disability compensation, thus speeding up the receipt of benefits they have earned. This list includes 11 respiratory conditions, as well as several forms of cancer, including reproductive cancers, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, and brain cancers such as glioblastoma. Survivors of veterans who died due to one of these conditions may now also be eligible for benefits.
- To better understand the impact of toxic exposures, the PACT Act requires VA to conduct new studies of veterans who served in Southwest Asia during the Gulf War and analyzes of trends in veterans’ health after September 11th. The new law also directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to convene a new interagency task force to develop a five-year strategic plan on research into toxic substance exposure.
- Ensuring veterans receive the care they need involves ensuring they are screened for toxic exposure and that VA personnel have the proper education and training. The PACT Act requires veterans enrolled in VA health care to be regularly screened for issues related to toxic exposure. This new law also requires VA to establish an outreach program for veterans regarding toxic exposure-related benefits and supports, and to require additional toxic exposure-related education and training for VA personnel.
- This bill also provides essential resources to VA to ensure it can provide timely access to services and benefits for all eligible veterans – including those already enrolled. The PACT Act provides VA with mechanisms to improve claims handling and increase the workforce. The bill also invests in VA health care facilities by authorizing 31 major medical clinics and research facilities in 19 states.
Biden-Harris Administration Action File on Military Toxic Exposures
This landmark legislation builds on existing efforts by the Biden-Harris administration to address the harmful effects of environmental exposures affecting service men and women:
- Presumption established for rare respiratory cancers: In April 2022, VA defined a presumptive service connection for several rare respiratory cancers for certain veterans – a milestone that marked progress toward President Biden’s commitment to ending cancer as we know it. Since this change, VA has been able to process more claims for veterans and survivors involving possible suspected rare respiratory cancer. With VA taking steps to raise awareness of these benefits, we expect the number of claims to increase in the coming months.
- Processing claims for new suspected respiratory conditions: In August 2021, VA began processing disability claims for asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis based on suspected particulate exposure. Veterans who served in the Southwest Asian theater of operations and other regions and who developed these conditions within ten years of military service are now eligible to apply for disability benefits and access VA health care. Since August, VA has processed 33,276 claims, granting more than 25,000 veterans and their survivors benefits for one or more conditions, resulting in more than $93 million in retroactive benefit payments.
- Raising awareness of VA benefits related to military exposures: Many veterans are still unaware of their eligibility for benefits and services related to potential military exposures. Beginning in November 2021, VA launched a proactive campaign to inform and encourage veterans to file claims related to military environmental exposures.
- Required training for VA and non-VA vendors: Health care providers and compensation and pension reviewers sometimes lack the training to understand or address veterans’ exposure issues. To address this challenge, VA asked compensation and pension providers and clinicians from the Veterans Health Administration to complete a training module on assessing deployment related to environmental exposures. VA also encourages all providers caring for veterans outside of VA through the Community Care Network contract to complete training on the TRAIN Learning Network, the VA’s publicly accessible training site. Additionally, VA employees and community care providers were encouraged to use the Exposure Ed app to help providers provide information to veterans about the health effects associated with certain exposures during military service. More information about the application is available here.
- Establishment of a Network of Specialized Service Providers and Call Center: Veterans concerned about the health outcomes of military exposures receive inconsistent care for these specific issues, especially outside of VA. Earlier this year, VA launched VET-HOME, The Veterans Exposure Team-Health Outcomes of Military Exposures. VA plans to hire medical professionals, including doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants who will specialize in conducting patient assessments regarding the health effects of military exposures. By January 2023, VA expects to have a fully operational call center and network of experts to assist veterans concerned about environmental exposure and provide advisory services to veterans in the primary care clinics.