The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said it received nearly 113,000 disability claims related to the toxic exposure legislation signed into law less than three months ago, an indication of the potential impact of the measure and the work ahead for the agency.
Benefits officials began accepting claims for all presumptive illnesses included in the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act) after it was signed by President Joe Biden on Aug. 10.
They include 12 types of cancer and a dozen other respiratory illnesses linked to burn pit exposure in the Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance for veterans who served in Vietnam; and radiation-related illnesses for veterans who served in several new locations in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Coverage for those issues had been a point of contention for years. In particular, veterans advocates lamented that too many serious problems believed linked to burn pit exposure were being ignored by VA leaders because of incomplete science linking the health problems with the toxic smoke from the waste fires.
In the 75 days since the signing, the department has received 112,949 new applications for disability claims related to the new presumptive illnesses, an increase in the benefits workload of more than 21% from the same period last year.
“For too long, toxic-exposed veterans and their families have had to fight their government for the benefits and health care they’ve earned,” Acting Under Secretary for Benefits Josh Jacobs said in a statement. “Thanks to the PACT Act, generations of veterans will be able to get the care and benefits they deserve.”
Depending on the severity of a veteran’s injuries, he or she may be eligible for up to $4,000 in disability compensation. Presumptive status for service-connected illnesses cuts down on the paperwork veterans are required to file to receive the monthly checks.
VA officials have been urging veterans who believe they may be eligible to apply now, even though claims will not be processed until January. Payouts should begin by spring.
The delay between accepting claims and processing them was designed to give VA officials time to put personnel and processes in place to ensure the flood of new claims can be smoothly integrated into the current benefits workflow.
Even so, senior officials have warned that the backlog of overdue first-time claims (ones that take more than four months to complete) is likely to rise early next year because of the new PACT Act cases.
The backlog currently sits at more than 143,000 cases, roughly double what it was before the start of the coronavirus pandemic in America in March 2020.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.