More than 144,000 U.S. veterans have enrolled in Department of Veterans Affairs health care since last August, an increase of 21,000 patients over the year before that may be related to landmark legislation that broadened health care and benefits for up to 1 million of the nation's veterans.
VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said Thursday that the department has had an uptick in applications for VA health care and is determining whether the new patients are the result of the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act. That law, signed last year, bolstered benefits to veterans sickened by exposure to battlefield pollutants, including open air burn pits, Agent Orange and more.
The PACT Act provided a special enrollment period for veterans who served from Sept. 11, 2001, to Oct. 1, 2013, and did not previously enroll in VA care. The period ends Oct. 1.
Elnahal said the VA is focusing as "diligently as it can" to reach these veterans and inform them of the benefit and the enrollment deadline.
"We have that critical one-year period if they were previously expired from being able to apply and qualify and are now in the middle of this one-year period," Elnahal said during a media roundtable with reporters Thursday.
During the period from Aug. 1, 2021, to mid-January 2022, roughly 123,000 new patients enrolled in VA care, according to Elnahal. A year later, post-PACT Act, that number is up 17%.
Elnahal said improvements are needed to the VA's health care eligibility system to understand the impact of the PACT Act provisions on VA care and expects that information this spring.
"Nonetheless, we're not waiting in terms of the outreach mission to those vets who qualify in this critical one-year window," Elnahal said. "We are constantly trying to reach out locally. That's the most important way to do it."
A common complaint among veterans centers on access to care and wait times for primary and specialty care medical appointments at VA medical centers and clinics. While 9 million veterans have enrolled in VA health care, about two-thirds actually use that care.
Elnahal said the 22% boost the VA received in its health care budget for fiscal 2023 -- $118.7 billion of the department's total $303.8 billion budget -- should contribute greatly to ensuring that veterans can access care.
The Veterans Health Administration plans to hire 52,000 employees to prepare for demand and keep up with retirements or those who leave VA for other jobs, an increase of 3%. Elnahal said that six months in, the agency has been able to increase its staffing by 1.5%.
The PACT Act also requires VA medical personnel to screen all patients for possible exposure during their time in service to toxic substances. According to the VA, 1.4 million veterans have been screened, with roughly 40% saying they may have been exposed to environmental pollutants.
Elnahal said that, of those who reported exposures, about 35% said they were exposed to burn pits and another 30% reported exposure to Agent Orange.
The VA will be analyzing the data to understand other trends in exposure, which he said would dictate future services and care.
"Health care might change for the better because we now have comprehensive knowledge about these exposures for the patients we serve," Elnahal said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.