Veterans Affairs officials will launch a “week of action” on Saturday designed to inform veterans about health care and benefits options related to military toxic exposure injuries, with dozens of events planned across all 50 states.
The move comes just a few weeks before Veterans Affairs staffers begin processing tens of thousands of new military toxic exposure claims filed in the wake of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act) being signed into law last August.
VA officials said since then more than 176,000 veterans have applied for disability benefits related to injuries from burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan, Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam and contact with other contaminants during military operations worldwide.
“There are millions of Veterans and survivors across America who are eligible for new health care and benefits, and we will not rest until every one of them gets what they’ve earned,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement.
“That’s what this PACT Act Week of Action is all about: educating veterans, their families, and survivors – and encouraging them to apply today.”
Events will include in-person town halls with VA officials in all 50 states, as well as in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Officials said the events will feature “veteran families and survivors, VA leaders, members of Congress, local elected officials, Veterans Service Organizations, State Directors of Veterans Affairs, and more.”
The push builds upon months of outreach efforts by VA officials on the PACT Act details, including a $3-million plus advertising campaign that includes several television and online public service announcements and a new video ad running in Times Square in New York City.
Senior VA leaders previewed the work during a hearing before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee this week, where they also pledged that the department will be ready for work ahead on processing claims and delivering benefits.
That work could be substantial. VA officials said since they began toxic exposure screenings at department medical centers last month, about 39% of those surveyed (nearly 200,000 veterans) have reported concerns about being exposed to toxins during their time in the service.
At a press conference earlier this month, McDonough said processing the thousands of disability claims will take time.
“Until we get into each case, we won’t know how quickly we can resolve them,” he said. “Some cases will be resolved in days, some in weeks, some in months.”
Department officials have also warned that the backlog of disability claims — the number of cases which take more than 120 days to complete — is likely to grow in coming months because of the flood of new toxic exposure filings.
At the start of this week, the backlog sat at about 153,00 cases, down from about 250,000 in fall 2021 but above the 80,000 case level the department was at before the COVID-19 pandemic began in America in early 2020.
Despite those challenges, VA officials have said they are prepared for the extra workload and focused on getting as many veterans to sign up for benefits as possible.
Veterans who believe they may be eligible for new health care services or benefits and cannot attend one of the upcoming events can visit VA.gov/PACT or call 1-800-MYVA411 (1-800-698-2411) for additional information.
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.