Veterans who qualify for disability compensation under the recently signed landmark toxic exposures act should begin filing claims, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said Wednesday.
Speaking at the American Legion's national convention in Milwaukee, McDonough announced that the department has retroactively designated all health conditions listed in the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act as presumed to be related to military service effective Aug. 10 -- the date the bill was signed.
The law had called for phasing in conditions for many of the eligible veterans over the next several years. Instead, the VA will start processing claims for all beginning on Jan. 1, the "earliest possible date" the department can address them, McDonough said.
"Veterans have waited too long for this care and these benefits already, and we're not going to make them wait any longer," McDonough said.
The law added 23 conditions to a list of presumptive illnesses considered related to burn pits, including certain types of cancer and respiratory illnesses, but they were to be phased in over the next three years, with those who are terminally ill, elderly or survivors having priority and eligible to file immediately.
The law also added high blood pressure to the list of illnesses presumed related to Agent Orange, a provision that could affect up to 500,000 Vietnam veterans. Most Vietnam veterans, except for those who are terminally ill; facing financial hardship or homelessness; or were 85 and older, weren't eligible to file a claim until October 2026, according to the law.
However, the PACT Act gave the VA the authority to move more quickly, and McDonough said the department wants every veteran to "get the care they need and their benefits they've earned."
"We're processing claims faster than we ever have before," he said.
More than 623,000 total claims were pending at the VA as of Aug. 27, with 154,000 categorized as "backlogged," or older than 125 days. That figure is down from more than 264,000 late last year.
To deal with the backlog and expected influx of new claims, the VA has hired thousands of new processors and automated its processing system to handle filings for commonly seen illnesses in veterans, such as hypertension, asthma, sleep apnea and prostate cancer.
McDonough said that, in many cases, the system reduces the processing time frame from months to days.
The PACT Act provides $278 billion over the next 10 years to expand VA health care and disability benefits for veterans exposed to a variety of toxins during military service, including burn pits, radiation, herbicides and chemicals.
More than 1 million veterans may be eligible under the legislation, and many have started claims already, according to McDonough. On Aug. 11 -- the day after President Joe Biden signed the new law -- the VA received the highest number of filings ever in a single day through the department's online disability claims filing system, McDonough said.
"No veteran is going to have to fight to get the quality care and benefits they've earned, no matter who they are or where they are," McDonough said.
To learn more or file a claim, veterans can visit the department's online page regarding PACT information or call 1-800-MyVA411 (800-698-2411).
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.