The Department of Veterans Affairs will start the new year processing nearly one-quarter of a million claims for disability compensation under legislation that expanded coverage for veterans sickened by environmental exposures in combat zones.
VA officials said Thursday that the department has received more than 213,000 claims related to the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act, signed into law in August and will begin processing them beginning Jan. 1.
Under the legislation, veterans may be eligible for disability benefits if they served overseas in certain areas where the U.S. military burned trash in massive open air burn pits, or they were exposed to Agent Orange or other contaminants in certain parts of the world.
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The VA began accepting claims this fall, but unless veterans were terminally ill, those claims couldn't be processed until next year. The agency had granted benefits worth $3.4 million to 200 veterans who were terminally ill as of Dec. 22.
In total, the department has received more than 2,600 claims from dying veterans and is "actively working on the remainder," according to Joshua Jacobs, VA's senior adviser for policy.
"Since the law was enacted in August, we've been doing everything we can to expedite the processing of claims and make sure that we're prepared to start delivering benefits to veterans who've been waiting in many cases for far too long," Jacobs told reporters during a virtual roundtable Dec. 22.
The VA published a rule in the Federal Register on Dec. 22 saying it would process claims under a policy based on the legislation but is developing regulations that will codify the law and "address any gaps and ambiguity" in the PACT Act as written.
While the VA predicts that its backlog -- currently about 170,000 claims that are older than 125 days -- will grow with the influx of new claims applications, officials said the department has taken steps to manage the process.
The Veterans Benefits Administration has hired more than 2,700 people to assist with the processing and has automated portions of the process, according to officials.
"The backlog is going to increase, but we're prepared to tackle it. We're implementing people/ process/technology solutions," Jacobs said.
The PACT Act extended the period for post-9/11 combat veterans to enroll in VA health care from five years to 10 and also included a one-year open enrollment for combat veterans who served more than a decade ago.
It expedited the claims process for 23 specific medical conditions believed to be caused by exposure to burn pits and other pollution in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, and it
expanded coverage for Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange, adding Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll to the list of places where veterans may have been exposed.
Most veterans who file a claim under the PACT Act in the first year of signing -- before Aug. 10, 2023, and receive approval will have their benefits backdated to Aug. 10, 2022. Should they file a claim after Aug. 10, the effective date for benefits will be the date of filing.
"We want to make sure veterans take advantage of this important window of time to file their claim," Jacobs said.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.