The Pact Act, formerly named the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, became U.S. law in August of 2022.
The law greatly expands the scope of VA health care benefits for military veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their time of service. With this expansion, the VA can provide essential medical care to a larger group of veterans – and, in some cases, their survivors. By some measures, the PACT Act is the largest benefit expansion in the history of the VA. Its passage will potentially help millions of U.S. veterans suffering from health conditions related to toxic exposure to burn pits or other hazards.
5 Benefits of the PACT Act of 2022
- Addition of more than 20 presumptive conditions
- Expansion of presumptive-exposure locations for Agent Orange and radiation
- Extension of eligibility
- Increased research, staff education, and medical treatment
- Toxic exposure screening for every veteran enrolled in VA health care
Members of the U.S. military are exposed to nearly countless hazards during their time of service – not least among them exposure to toxic fumes and chemicals, especially those associated with toxic burn pits.
The reality is that many veterans, later in life, develop long-term, chronic, and debilitating health conditions that often can be traced to exposure to hazardous chemicals and burn pits during their time of service. With the PACT Act’s historic expansion of VA benefits for soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals, potentially millions more U.S. veterans will have access to essential medical care that can tremendously improve their quality of life.
Historically, the burden of proof has been heavy for the veteran, and my veterans had their claims for benefits denied. With the PACT Act, this burden of proof has been lightened, and the process to obtain VA health care benefits associated with toxic burn pit exposure will now be much less time consuming and difficult for our veterans. Much like programs such as the Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance Program open the door for veterans to find new careers, these expanded VA health care benefits make it possible for veterans to enjoy the highest quality of physical and mental health available to them.
What Are Military Toxic Exposures?
“Military toxic exposures” is an umbrella term that covers the full spectrum of possible toxins, pollutants, fumes, and chemicals that U.S. veterans may have come into contact with during their time of service. These contaminants can include air pollution associated with toxic burn pits, oil well fires, dust, pesticides, sand, and other airborne toxins.
Toxic exposure sources include chemicals like Agent Orange and other herbicides used to destroy crops during the Vietnam War. In the course of their day-to-day duties, many members of the U.S. military are exposed to industrial solvents, toxic fumes, asbestos, burn pits, radiation, and chemicals in everything from insulating fluid to ammunition – many of these chemicals have been linked to long-term health concerns. For those who served during the Gulf War, additional health concerns can potentially be linked to the use of chemical and biological weapons, some of which may be responsible for the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome.
Why Did Congress Pass the PACT Act of 2022?
America has long held the sacred belief that the U.S. government has an obligation to the men and women who serve in its military. Part of that obligation includes caring for military personnel and their families when they complete their time of service. Veterans Affairs health care plays a tremendous role in ensuring that veterans and their families remain physically and mentally healthy and able to enjoy the highest quality of life available to them long after their military service is complete. This commitment also includes dedication to ensuring jobs for veterans when they complete their time of service.
In recent decades, medical research has continued to support the fact that many chronic health conditions, including asthma, cancer, and many others, may not appear until many years after a veteran’s service ended. This makes it extremely difficult for veterans to prove a direct link between their time of service and their current medical conditions. Proving a service connection is typically required before VA disability benefits are awarded. This has potentially kept millions of American veterans from accessing the benefits they earned through their time of service. The PACT Act effectively removes this barrier.
The PACT Act is named in honor of Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, a combat medic who died from a rare form of lung cancer. It is expected that this legislation will help deliver more timely VA health care benefits and services to more than five million veterans across several generations who may have been exposed to toxic fumes, substances and/or burn pits during their time of service.
5 Benefits of the PACT Act of 2022
Many veterans can now receive better VA health care benefits. Let’s look in more detail at some of the key benefits of the PACT Act of 2022.
1. Addition of More Than 20 Presumptive Conditions
Veterans living with a presumptive condition do not need to prove that their service directly caused the medical condition. Instead, they simply need to meet the service requirements. This change is especially important for Gulf War era and post-9/11 veterans.
The VA now recognizes 12 kinds of cancer as presumptive conditions, including brain cancer, skin cancer, and lymphoma. In addition, 12 additional illnesses are now considered presumptive conditions – this list includes asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and more.
One of the biggest hurdles to clear when applying for VA disability benefits is showing a documented connection between a current medical condition and the time and conditions of military service. Unless a current medical condition is classified as “presumptive,” a veteran must undergo extensive medical review and testing to show that something during the time of military service was the direct cause of current medical issues.
This process often is difficult and time-consuming, causing many U.S. veterans to go without compensation while they wait to hear a decision from the VA – similar to the situation with veteran unemployment benefits. With the addition of 20 more presumptive conditions, veterans who currently live with those conditions can skip the extensive medical evidence portion of their VA disability benefits claim. This not only makes their claims more likely to be accepted, but also greatly reduces the time the veteran will need to wait before they begin to receive disability compensation. The PACT Act also makes specific provisions to speed up the review process for veterans with deteriorating health conditions and those over 80 years old.
These additions will be phased into VA decision-making over the next three years.
2. Expansion of Presumptive-exposure Locations for Agent Orange and Radiation
The PACT Act added several locations to the presumptive list when it comes to toxic exposure to Agent Orange and radiation.
New locations for Agent Orange exposure include:
- All U.S. or Royal Thai military bases in Thailand from January 9, 1962, through June 30, 1976
- Guam, American Samoa, or the territorial waters off of Guam or American Samoa from January 9, 1962, through July 30, 1980
- Cambodia at Mimot or Krek, Kampong Cham Province from April 16, 1969, through April 30, 1969
- Johnston Atoll or on a ship that called at Johnston Atoll from January 1, 1972, through September 30, 1977
- Laos from December 1, 1965, through September 30, 1969
Any U.S. veterans serving in these areas within the specified time periods now will be considered as having toxic exposure to Agent Orange.
New locations for radiation exposure include:
- Cleanup of the Air Force B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons off the coast of Palomares, Spain, from January 17, 1966, through March 31, 1967
- Cleanup of Enewetak Atoll, from January 1, 1977, through December 31, 1980
- Response to the fire onboard an Air Force B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons near Thule Air Force Base in Greenland from January 21, 1968, to September 25, 1968
Any U.S. military personnel who participated in these efforts will be presumed to have been exposed to radiation.
In addition to the new presumptive locations, the VA will now recognize hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance as two new presumptive conditions associated with toxic exposure to Agent Orange and/or radiation. The monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance recognition goes into effect immediately, while the recognition of hypertension as a presumptive condition will take effect in 2026.
3. Extension of Eligibility
Many symptoms of toxic exposure don’t manifest until years after separation from service. Because of this delay, many U.S. veterans may have missed their eligibility window for enrolling in VA health care. In many cases, this meant the veteran had to go without the vital medical care and support they needed.
The PACT Act expands the eligibility timeline to make it possible for more U.S. veterans to be eligible for VA benefits. For post-9/11 combat veterans, the bill extends the eligibility time period for enrolling in VA health care from five to 10 years after separating from service. For combat veterans who do not fall within that time frame, the bill also allows for a one-year open enrollment period. These expansions of eligibility mean that more veterans can enroll in VA health care without proving a documented service connected disability.
4. Increased Research, Staff Education, and Medical Treatment
The PACT Act requires that the VA conduct new research studies of veterans who served in Southwest Asia during the Gulf War, along with analyses of post-9/11 veterans’ health trends.
The new law also specifies that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs will create an interagency working group tasked with developing a five-year strategic plan to direct further toxic exposure research. In addition, the Act provides for additional training of VA personnel around symptoms of toxic exposure in U.S. veterans.
Essential to the success of this legislation is ensuring that the VA has the resources to deliver these essential services to veterans. The PACT Act provides for mechanisms to enhance claims processing and increase the size of the VA’s workforce. The law also provides a substantial investment in VA health care facilities by authorizing 31 major medical health clinics and research facilities across 19 states.
5. Toxic Exposure Screening for Every Veteran Enrolled in VA Health Care
Under the PACT Act, U.S. veterans enrolled in VA medical care will be screened regularly for signs of toxic exposure. The VA also will develop a comprehensive outreach program for all U.S. veterans to raise awareness of toxic exposure resources, benefits, and support.
The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that more than 3.5 million U.S. military personnel in recent wars may have been exposed to toxins at high enough levels to cause health concerns. However, only a fraction of those currently have registered with the VA’s official burn pit registry.
How Do I Apply for These New Benefits?
If you have never submitted a claim for VA disability benefits, you can do so online, by mail, in person, or with the help of a trained professional, through Veterans Service Organizations or qualified attorneys. Many local chapters of the American Legion have professionals on standby to help veterans apply.
If you have submitted a claim in the past that was denied, it might now be considered a presumptive condition. File a supplemental claim and the VA will review your case again. If you have a claim in process and you’re waiting to hear a decision, you don’t need to do anything.
If you think you qualify for a presumptive condition, you should submit a new claim as soon as possible. The VA actively encourages any veteran who believes they may be eligible for benefits and care under the PACT Act to file a new claim. Depending on the specific situation, a veteran may even qualify for retroactive benefits if they go ahead and file as early as possible.