The Department of Veterans Affairs has established a website explaining the details of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act, and encourages veterans to file claims and apply for health care coverage.
The bill, expected to be signed into law Monday by President Joe Biden in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House, provides health care and disability benefits for certain deployment-related diseases and conditions.
On Tuesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough encouraged affected veterans, their family members or survivors to apply for benefits by filing a claim.
"Once the President signs this bill into law, we at VA will implement it quickly and effectively, delivering the care these veterans need and the benefits they deserve," McDonough said in a statement to the press.
The PACT Act was approved by the Senate late Tuesday in an 86-11 vote, the culmination of a monthslong congressional effort to bring the legislation across the proverbial finish line. In his State of the Union Address in January, Biden vowed to help veterans with exposure-related illnesses, calling it a "sacred obligation."
Following Senate approval of the bill, Biden released a statement saying passage was a "decisive and bipartisan win for America's veterans."
"For the millions of veterans who may have been exposed to harmful toxins, this bill means quicker access to health care services and other benefits," Biden said. "This could be the difference between life and death for many suffering from toxic-related illnesses."
Terri Tanielian, special assistant to the president for veterans affairs, said Wednesday that the bill includes provisions and resources for the VA to process claims more quickly, including an automated system that will expedite claims filed for certain conditions.
Currently, the VA has 595,862 claims filed by veterans that are pending; that includes 164,743 considered backlogged, or pending for more than 125 days.
The PACT Act is expected to add thousands of more claims, from former service members who were diagnosed with one or more of 23 illnesses listed in the new legislation as presumed to be related to airborne toxins. Those will range from Vietnam-era veterans with hypertension to monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, to veterans exposed to Agent Orange who previously couldn't file a claim because they were assigned to locations that weren't identified as having stored or used toxic herbicides.
But Tanielian said the department will be ready.
"The department is planning to be able to lean in. They have been working on hiring more claims processors and looking at additional ways to do more to automate claims. If they can [do that], the timeline will be much shorter," Tanielian said in an interview with Military.com.
The bill could help roughly 3.5 million veterans access health care in the coming years.
The PACT Act extends the period for post-9/11 combat veterans to enroll in VA health care from five years to 10 and also includes a one-year open enrollment for combat veterans who fall outside that time frame.
It expedites claims for more than 20 specific conditions and removes a requirement that afflicted veterans and their survivors prove service connection for 11 specific respiratory conditions and several types of cancer, including reproductive cancers, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer and brain cancers.
Survivors of veterans who died due to one of these conditions may now also be eligible for benefits, according to a White House press release.
In addition to expanding benefits for post-9/11 veterans, the agreement announced Wednesday broadens coverage for Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Specifically, it would add Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll to the list of places where veterans were exposed to Agent Orange and so can get coverage.
Tanielian said the legislation is going to draw more patients into the VA's health care system, where "they will receive high-quality integrated health care."
"The President has made specific commitments about ensuring that we can continue to deliver world-class health care to veterans by releasing additional rules and guidance to improve and expand access to services," Tanielian said.
The VA's new website for the PACT Act can be found here. Veterans, family members and survivors also can call (800) 698-2411 to have their questions answered. The hearing impaired can access information through 711 via teletypewriter.
"We'll be communicating with you every step of the way to make sure that you and your loved ones get the benefits you've earned," McDonough said while announcing the new webpage and phone number.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.