The Department of Veterans Affairs will host town hall events and open houses at more than 90 facilities nationwide next week to educate veterans on benefits available under a sweeping toxic exposure law that was enacted in August.
The VA's "PACT Act Week of Action" begins Saturday and runs through Dec. 17. Veterans or their survivors who attend the events will be able to learn about the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act and, in many cases, apply for related medical care and benefits, according to the VA.
"We are going to be doing screenings and connecting [veterans] directly with claims experts to help them file their benefits claims, should they screen positive," John Boerstler, VA's chief experience officer, said during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.
Vietnam War, Gulf War and post-9/11 era veterans may be eligible for benefits under the law if they were exposed to toxic fumes, burn pits, Agent Orange, radiation and other environmental hazards during their military service. Survivors of toxic-exposed veterans or veterans who served in specific countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia may be eligible, as well.
The PACT Act extended the amount of time post-9/11 veterans can enroll in VA health care by up to 10 years after discharge and also gave certain veterans who were discharged before Oct. 1, 2013, a special one-year enrollment period for VA health care that ends Oct. 1, 2023.
The law designated nearly two dozen diseases as presumed to be related to exposure to burn pits and added conditions to the list of presumptive illnesses for Agent Orange exposure, making veterans who have been diagnosed with the named illnesses eligible for expedited disability compensation.
The PACT Act also added new geographic areas of service for veterans to receive Agent Orange-related benefits, and it mandated toxic exposure screenings. Under the law, surviving family members may also be eligible for benefits and compensation if their loved ones died as a result of a service-connected condition.
"We want to raise the awareness of veterans about the fact that there are these expanded access to benefits and care available to them," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Dec. 1 when announcing the events. "We want to explain to the communities where those veterans live, and to families of veterans, and to trusted stakeholders -- the local [veterans service organizations] that this access to benefits and care is available so that out of this comes additional veterans participation in the PACT Act."
According to the VA, the Veterans Health Administration has conducted roughly 500,000 exposure screenings since Nov. 8, with more than 37% of veterans reporting they encountered environmental hazards during their military service.
The screenings allow the VA to refer affected veterans to health care and services and to the Veterans Benefits Administration if they qualify.
The PACT Act provisions are expected to increase the number of veterans seeking health care and filing compensation claims. As a result, the VA is hiring staff to expand its services, beginning earlier this year with a goal to hire 2,000 employees for claims processing.
During the hearing Wednesday, Joshua Jacobs, a senior adviser in the VA's office of the under secretary for benefits, said the department plans to add another 1,900 employees in the next several months.
"We are focused on hiring efforts up and down the organization," Jacobs said.
Jacobs added that, as a result of the influx of claims applications, the department expects the backlog -- the number of claims processing for more than 125 days -- to grow but said the department is better equipped to tackle the surge of filings than before, with improved technology and additional staff.
He said the VA also will be reviewing claims and awarding partial ratings for those that include multiple medical conditions but have varying amounts of evidence and research.
"If we have enough evidence to make a decision on three of those, we want to execute that so we can put money in the veteran's pocket right while we work to continue to evaluate the evidence," Jacobs said.
Still, lawmakers express concern that despite the changes, the VA would still face trouble accommodating the claims.
"Unfortunately, you know many of these new hires won't be able to put a dent in the backlog until they are fully trained," said Illinois Rep. Mike Bost, the committee's ranking Republican. "Furthermore, mandatory overtime is costly and can lead to employee burnout."
Jacobs assured Bost that employee training is underway and mandatory overtime is required through the end of the year, but the VA realizes "it is not a sustainable model."
PACT Act Week of Action events are planned in all 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico. A list, along with the dates and times for the scheduled (events), can be found on the VA's website.
VA officials said that veterans should bring their DD-214 or other military paperwork to the events. For those who cannot attend, the department directed veterans to go to the VA's PACT Act website or call 1-800-MYVA411.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.