Veterans with cancer will get priority when the Department of Veterans Affairs begins processing benefits claims under the sweeping toxic exposure law enacted earlier this year, officials said Monday.
"I'm proud to announce for the first time today, on National Cancer Awareness Day, that we're expediting benefits delivery for veterans with cancer conditions covered in this law," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said during a speech at the National Press Club.
McDonough also vowed the department "will not rest" until "every veteran gets the care they need and the benefits they deserve."
The VA is set to begin processing claims for benefits filed under the toxic exposure bill, known as the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act, on Jan. 1.
The law designated 23 diseases as presumed to be linked to burn pits used during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and other airborne pollutants and environmental hazards from earlier conflicts, meaning veterans with those ailments will now have a streamlined process for claiming health care and disability benefits.
Of the 23 presumptive diseases, about half are different types of cancer: melanoma, brain cancer, neck cancer, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, glioblastoma, head cancer of any type, respiratory cancer of any type, reproductive cancer of any type, gastrointestinal cancer of any type, lymphoma of any type and lymphomatic cancer of any type.
The decision to prioritize benefits claims for cancer over the other presumptive diseases in the PACT Act is part of the Biden administration's Cancer Moonshot, the effort to find new treatments and slash the death rate for cancer, the VA said. President Joe Biden first launched the Cancer Moonshot initiative when he was vice president and revived it earlier this year.
Biden's attention on cancer came after his son Beau died of glioblastoma in 2015. Biden has said he suspects his son's fatal cancer was caused by the burn pits he was exposed to while serving in Iraq and Kosovo with the Delaware National Guard.
The announcement on prioritizing claims from veterans with cancer is one of a flurry of moves the VA is making as it begins to implement the PACT Act and prepare to process claims.
Also Monday, the department formally unveiled the PACT Act-mandated toxic exposure screening it will provide to veterans starting this week.
Since the PACT Act was signed into law in August, nearly 137,000 veterans have filed claims for benefits, McDonough said Monday. That's up from the 113,000 claims he cited just a couple weeks ago.
The gap between accepting claims as soon as the bill was signed and waiting to process them until January was built into the law to give the VA time to hire more claims processors. The department has met a goal it set earlier this year to hire 2,000 new processors, McDonough said, though he acknowledged more will be needed.
"That's not enough," he said. "We need at least that many more, if not more than that to implement the PACT Act."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.