About 110,000 veterans sought Department of Veterans Affairs benefits for the first time in the first year of the PACT Act, and many more newly VA-eligible beneficiaries will likely do so under the new law, VA officials told Military.com.
The PACT Act created the opportunity for veterans with certain toxic-exposure-related health conditions and their survivors to receive health care and financial compensation by presuming that the conditions are service-connected if they served in a certain place and at a certain time. But many members of what the VA calls "the PACT Act planning population" of veterans may never have had any prior contact with the VA, said Steve Miska, PACT Act transitional executive director.
In the case of any uncertainty over the application process, veterans or their survivors may enlist the help of the VA itself, from the department's accredited representatives (including veterans service organizations), or from veterans offices run by state and local governments.
Beware of Fraud: PACT Act Claim Assistance Should Be Free
Citing a "drastic increase" in fraud and predatory practices targeting veterans, "especially around the PACT Act," the VA emphasizes that "you do not need to pay anybody to help" with filing a PACT Act claim, said Kaitlin Richards, assistant director in VA's Office of Policy and Oversight.
By law, organizations or individuals may not prepare, present or file claims on behalf of veterans without becoming accredited by the VA. Those accredited representatives may not charge a fee to help with filing initial claims -- emphasis on "initial." Expenses are allowed, however, which the VA defines only as "unusual expenses." "Initial" means the first time a given claim is filed; after the VA decides on a claim, an attorney may charge a fee to try to get the decision changed, for example.
VA In-Person and Virtual PACT Act Assistance
Veterans or survivors who need help filing a PACT Act claim can walk into a VA regional office to ask for help in person, Richards said. This assistance includes the likes of, for example, the Public Contact Team at the Denver Regional Office, which lets visitors schedule their own appointments with the VA's "VERA" (Visitor Engagement Reporting Application) appointment scheduler. A regional VA office may offer both in-person and virtual visits.
VA staffers at the VA Benefits Hotline (800-827-1000) and VA Health Benefits Hotline (877-222-8387) can also answer questions to help veterans "file that claim and answer those specific questions for them," Richards said.
VA Accredited Representatives and the PACT Act
Attorneys, claims agents and veterans service officers accredited by the VA to help with benefits claims and appeals must pass an exam and a background check, and they must take continuing education courses to legally represent veterans before the VA.
Organizations with VA's stamp of approval, which you can search for here, can help with a range of benefits, including health care and financial compensation, and they can both help you gather evidence to support a PACT Act claim and file it on your behalf.
Veterans Service Organizations and the PACT Act
National veterans service organizations have taken part in the VA's PACT Act information sessions around the country in 2023, and Miska said the act itself even requires the VA to coordinate regularly with veterans groups.
National veterans service organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars offer hands-on help with PACT Act benefits claims, as do nonprofits that specialize in helping the surviving family members of deceased veterans, such as the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and Gold Star Wives of America.
The National Veterans Legal Services Program's free Burn Pits Claims Assistance Program prioritizes veterans whose past claims were denied -- first those with conditions not yet considered “presumptive” under the PACT Act, followed by those whose claim for a presumptive condition was denied after the creation of the act.
Especially if a veteran is being asked to pay money to file their initial claim, "tell them, 'Don't believe that person,'" Miska said. "Go to a VSO -- Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion, whatever VSO they're comfortable affiliating with."
State and Local Government Veterans Services Offices
The veterans services officers within state and local governments can help with the federal benefit application, and getting to know those officials can have an added benefit, said Paul Frost, a Navy retiree and program director for the Military Officers Association of America, in a video about the PACT Act posted to the association's YouTube and Facebook pages.
In places where they exist, the state- or county-level offices are particularly tuned in to added benefits veterans may qualify to receive from their state, Frost said.
Veterans or survivors shouldn't be shy about filing a PACT Act claim, because "there are a lot of people willing to help veterans out there," Miska said.
-- Amanda Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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