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CT veterans exposed to toxins can directly enroll in VA health care

Veterans salute while the national anthem is played.
Yehyun Kim
CT Mirror
Veterans salute while the national anthem is played.

Military veterans across Connecticut and the U.S. who were exposed to toxins and other hazardous substances while serving will see an expansion of health care years earlier than planned.

Congress passed a law in 2022 directing the expansion through a phased-in approach that could have taken up to eight years to implement. But the federal government sped up the process to allow veterans to begin enrolling as early as next week. Millions are likely to become eligible.

But some advocates fear the fast rollout could lead to delays.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will allow veterans to directly enroll in VA health care starting on March 5 and without needing to first apply for VA benefits. Eligibility includes individuals with exposures to toxins during deployment, active duty or training going back to the Vietnam War, whether they were abroad or at home.

The expansion is part of “The Honoring Our PACT Act,” federal legislation that removed the burden placed on veterans to prove certain illnesses are tied to their service and establishes a presumption of service connection for almost two dozen medical conditions. Congress approved the PACT Act in August 2022 after a years-long fight by advocacy groups to streamline the process for veterans and their families.

“With this expansion, VA can care for all Veterans who served in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Global War on Terror, or any other combat zone after 9/11,” VA Under Secretary for Health Shereef Elnahal said. “We can also care for Veterans who never deployed but were exposed to toxins or hazards while training or on active duty here at home — by working with chemicals, pesticides, lead, asbestos, certain paints, nuclear weapons, X-rays and more.”

With proper documentation of service and their medical conditions, veterans are able to file claims with the VA under the PACT Act at any time. If veterans had applied by August 2023, they were eligible for retroactive compensation going back a year.

The law expands eligibility to receive VA health care and benefits for those who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War and post-9/11 wars and were exposed to toxic substances. Many who served on bases in Afghanistan and Iraq were exposed to burn pits where the military disposed of trash and other waste. It also extends health care benefits for veterans who were part of a “toxic exposure risk activity” abroad or in the U.S.

Because of those exposures, the PACT Act establishes 23 presumptive illnesses and conditions as well as a list of locations and bases where members served in those various wars.

“This expanded eligibility corrects this historic wrong and ensures no veteran has to fight for benefits they rightly deserve,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who serves on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and worked on parts of the PACT Act. “Our nation’s veterans put their lives on the line to serve our country, and it is a matter of simple justice to ensure they have the best health care possible.”

The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center has been helping veterans in the state to navigate the new law. Chelsea Donaldson, supervising attorney for veteran benefits, said the group has been “swamped” with calls about the PACT Act and expects an uptick with the health care expansion.

Donaldson said she has seen delays since the rollout of the 2022 law, adding that she hopes the VA has a plan in place to deal with the “influx of claims” that are expected in the coming weeks and months.

“If they received hundreds of thousands in the first year, I can only imagine what this is going to do,” Donaldson said. “We’ve had clients die waiting for their benefits.”

Donaldson said she still has concerns about the backlog of claims, including those of her clients. Camille Taylor, whose husband is a Navy veteran of 26 years, said his claim has been pending at the VA for at least five years. He was exposed while serving stateside to Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide that was used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War era. Taylor said the VA already identified that his illness was a direct result of his exposure but has asked for more evidence.

“I want people to realize behind every claim number or file number is a human being who has served this country and has suffered consequences of their service,” Taylor said, adding that they “need to be protected and cared for based on the health problems and issues that have come up because of their service.”

Since the PACT Act was signed into law, more than 500,000 veterans across the country have enrolled in VA health care, according to the VA.

And as of August 2023, over 4,700 claims were filed by veterans in Connecticut under the PACT Act, with more than 2,100 approved.

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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