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PACT Act

The PACT Act is a law that expands VA health care benefits for Veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other harmful substances. 

Understanding the PACT Act and Its Implications for Veterans in Colorado

The PACT Act (P.L 117-168) expands and extends Veterans Affairs (VA) health care eligibility for Veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances during their service. The law expands the list of conditions that are considered to have been “incurred or aggravated during active military service,” extends the enrollment period for Veterans and expands eligibility of certain benefits to include surviving family members. 

 

Colorado is home to over 340,000 veterans. As of August 2023, the VA has received close to 13,000 PACT Act related claims from veterans in Colorado and of those claims, 8,500 have been resolved, with a total of $30 million in benefits. The agency reported an 80% grant rate, 5% higher than the national average.

 

 

 

 

The law addresses short term remediation by providing benefits to veterans who have been exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances, and it also addresses long term needs of veterans through research to better understand the health consequences of toxic exposure experienced during military service. The law establishes an interagency working group focused on toxic exposure research, and brings together expertise from the Department of Veteran Affairs, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

For close to 10 years, starting in 1961, the U.S. Air Force sprayed 11 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam as part of a military project called Operation Ranch Hand. Exposure to Agent Orange has been connected to various illnesses including bladder cancer, leukemia, and lung cancer, among others. However, toxic substance exposure was not limited to Agent Orange and Vietnam. Many service members returning from the Gulf War were affected with Gulf War Illness, a side effect of pesticide exposure. As many as 250,000 of those deployed in the Gulf War reported being affected by this illness. 

 

Burn pits have also been a source of toxic exposure and a common practice on bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Southeast Asia theatre, where they were used to burn trash. These pits were used to dispose of a wide range of materials including computers, tires, medical waste, and jet fuel, among others. Reports suggest that smoke emanating from these fires cause a series of illnesses, from respiratory cancer and bronchial asthma to sleep apnea, bronchitis and sinusitis cancer. Since the 1991 invasion of Iraq, approximately 3.5 million military personnel, as per VA estimates, have encountered burn-pit emissions.

 

Between 2001 and 2020, the VA denied 78 percent of veteran’s disability claims mentioning burn pits. Two common reasons for a denied claim included: “no diagnosis of the claimed condition” and “no medical nexus between the claimed condition and military service,” according to a Department of Veterans Affairs  spokesman. 

 

The PACT Act addresses the second most common reason for benefit denials by expanding the list of presumptive conditions, locations, military operations, and time periods for burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic exposures. This means veterans applying for benefits who fit these eligibility requirements do not need to prove their service caused the illness. This saves both the veteran and the VA a step in the claim process, reducing wait times. 

 

Core Provisions of the PACT Act

 

For veterans who may have been exposed to toxic substances during their service, the PACT Act expands and extends benefits in the following ways: 

 

  • Expands list of presumptive locations to include Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Uzbekistan, Yemen, the Philippines, and the airspace above any of these locations on or after September 11, 2001; and Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the United Arab Emirates, and the airspace above any of these locations on or after August 2, 1990. Those who served in these locations and during these time periods are determined to have been exposed to toxic burn pits.
     

  • Expands list of presumptive military operations to include Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, Operation Inherent Resolve, and Resolute Support Mission. Those who served as part of these operations are now eligible to enroll in VA healthcare without first needing to apply for VA benefits.
     

  • Extends the VA health care enrollment period for veterans from 5 years after deployment to 10 years; allowing veterans to apply for VA healthcare benefits up to 10 years after their service.
     

  • Adds over 20 new conditions that are presumed to be connected to toxic exposure during service. This allows veterans with these conditions to qualify for disability benefits without needing to establish a direct connection between their illness and military service.
     

  • Mandates research studies concerning the health consequences of toxic exposure
     

  • Provides benefits to spouses and dependent survivors of Veterans who have succumbed to illnesses linked to toxic exposure. Benefits include a monthly stipend, burial support, and health care, among others.
     

  • Establishes 31 new VA facilities and increases the VA workforce to process new claims permitted through the PACT Act. 

 

For veterans in Colorado and nationwide, the VA will be hosting and supporting over 500 national outreach events to raise awareness among veterans. Already the VA has screened five million veterans for toxic exposure, finding that nearly half have at least one possible toxic exposure. 

 

In August 2023 over 700 veterans attended a clinic at the Colorado National Guard Center in northern Colorado Springs for assistance applying for disability benefits. One attendee, John Michael "Mike" Carter, a Vietnam Veteran, attended to apply for VA benefits under the PACT Act now that his condition, hypertension, has been added to the list of presumptive conditions caused by toxic-exposure. 

 

To learn more about the PACT Act and benefits that may be available to you, visit https://www.va.gov/resources/the-pact-act-and-your-va-benefits/

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