The Department of Veterans Affairs has started processing disability compensation claims for veterans who are eligible under the PACT Act and have a terminal illness, weeks before processing is set to begin for all veterans covered by the law.
The VA announced Monday that it would move up processing for dying veterans immediately, beginning the process before the original Jan. 1, 2023, date when all claims under the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act will begin to be sorted.
"These veterans have stepped up to serve our country in the times when we needed them most -- and now it's our job to step up for them," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a press release Monday.
The VA has been gearing up for the law, commonly referred to as the "burn pit" bill, to take effect, encouraging veterans to go ahead and file claims in the months before they would be reviewed. Monday's announcement represents the agency's effort to make sure those with terminal illnesses get priority.
The PACT Act, signed into law Aug. 10 by President Joe Biden, designated nearly two dozen diseases as presumed to be related to exposure to burn pits and added conditions to the list of presumptive illnesses for Agent Orange exposure, making veterans who have been diagnosed with the named illnesses eligible for expedited disability compensation.
It also added new geographic areas of service for veterans to receive Agent Orange-related benefits; extended the amount of time post-9/11 veterans can enroll in VA health care; and gave certain veterans who were discharged before Oct. 1, 2013, a special one-year enrollment period for VA health care that runs through Oct. 1, 2023.
The legislation was expected to add thousands of disability compensation claims from former service members diagnosed with illnesses believed to be linked to pollution from burn pits used for trash disposal overseas and other toxic chemicals encountered during military service.
For more than a decade, veterans with respiratory ailments, cancer and other diseases have said their illnesses were caused by the fumes from fires and open air burn pits that were used to dispose of plastics, garbage, hospital waste, fuel and more, but both the Department of Defense and the VA cast doubt on the claims, saying evidence didn't exist that could definitively link the illnesses to military service.
In the past two years, however, the VA moved to expand burn pit-related benefits for former service members with respiratory illnesses and rare cancers and, with the development of the PACT Act, sought to encourage veterans to apply for benefits.
The VA also elected to accelerate the timeline for veterans to apply for PACT Act benefits rather than follow the phased-in approach included in the legislation. As of early December, veterans had filed more than 176,000 PACT Act-related claims, most of which the VA will begin reviewing on Jan. 1.
In addition to terminally ill veterans, anyone with cancer; experiencing homelessness; older than 85; experiencing financial hardship; or a Medal of Honor or Purple Heart recipient will have processing priority.
VA officials said the legislation does not allow them to begin fully processing PACT Act claims until Jan. 1, but said the department was able to expedite claims to ensure that "terminally ill Veterans will receive their earned benefits and health care on the earliest possible date."
If a claim is examined and determined not to be eligible for an immediate award, it will be reexamined later.
This week, the VA is holding more than 90 events in all 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico to raise awareness of the benefits now offered as part of the PACT Act. At these events, veterans or their survivors who attend the events will be able to learn about opportunities under the PACT Act and, in some cases, apply for related medical care and benefits.
For more information about the PACT Act and filing a claim, veterans and their family members can visit the VA's PACT Act website or call 1-800-MYVA411.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.