The Department of Veterans Affairs screened more than 4 million U.S. military veterans in the first year of the new PACT Act to find out if they thought they'd been exposed to toxins during their military service. The vast majority of those screened were already enrolled in VA health care.
Of those millions of veterans, 1.7 million had "screened positive" for possible exposure, Steve Miska, the VA's PACT Act transitional executive director, told Military.com.
As a result, the VA is reaching back out to those veterans, "encouraging them to file a supplemental claim that could potentially increase benefits, whether on the health-care side or many of the other benefits," Miska said.
The PACT Act linked a variety of medical conditions with toxins common during specific eras or circumstances of military service. Rather than require veterans or their survivors to prove that a toxic exposure caused a given condition, the law assumes that some illnesses are service-connected if the person served in a certain place at a certain time. This means that veterans may be eligible for additional VA benefits based on past toxic exposure during their service.
Here's how the PACT Act could affect existing VA beneficiaries:
Veterans Who Already Receive Partial Disability Pay
Veterans who already have a partial VA disability rating could have their rating increased now that the VA covers more conditions under the PACT Act, and they don't need to fear that applying could potentially cause their rating to decrease instead, VA officials told Military.com.
That increased rating could add up to a significant difference in monthly compensation, especially for veterans with dependents. For example, a veteran with a spouse and two dependent children under age 18 whose disability rating rises from 10% to 60% could see their pay rise from $165.92 a month to $1,588.65 a month in 2023.
"And we are not going [and] looking back at other service-connected issues trying to decrease those," Kaitlin Richards, assistant director in the VA's Office of Policy and Oversight, told Military.com.
Veterans Who Already Receive 100% Disability Pay
Even those veterans who already receive the maximum monthly disability benefit should file a PACT Act claim if they think they have a condition that's newly covered under the PACT Act, the VA officials told Military.com. Doing so could benefit not only the veterans now but their families later.
"What I tell everyone -- because we always get that question -- is, even if you are 100% service-connected already, you should still file for benefits," Richards said. "Because if you get [declared] service-connected for a disability, and that is ultimately the disability that you pass away from, that -- whatever is listed on your death certificate -- is how your survivor, your spouse, will be able to file for their own benefits."
Meanwhile, veterans themselves may, depending on their condition, qualify for additional benefits if they need, for example, aid and attendance in everyday living or specially adapted housing.
This "special monthly compensation ... is paying at an even higher level," Richards said.
Establishing a service connection could ultimately help with burial, such as providing an allowance for costs.
Surviving Family Members Who Already Receive DIC
The survivors of deceased veterans who already receive the VA's Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) likely won't benefit from filing a toxic exposure claim now, "unless they have an increase in their [veteran's] disability [rating]," Richards said.
DIC beneficiaries can get an extra $331.84 a month if their veteran was totally disabled with a service-connected disability for eight years leading up to the veteran's death.
Survivors should file a new DIC claim if they think they qualify now, even if the VA denied their claim in the past.
Surviving Family Members Who Already Receive VA Survivors Pension
Current recipients of the VA's income-based Survivors Pension could become eligible for DIC instead if their service member died of a newly presumptive condition.
Because the Survivors Pension is meant only to raise their income up to a certain threshold, depending on individual circumstances, the flat-rate DIC could pay more.
-- Amanda Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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