The Department of Veterans Affairs has launched a study to determine whether three types of cancer are linked to environmental exposures for U.S. troops who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The VA announced Tuesday that it will explore a possible link between acute leukemia, chronic leukemia and multiple myeloma and service in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Uzbekistan and all of the Southwest Asia operational theater.
The PACT Act, which went into effect last August, designated 23 conditions as presumed to be related to veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic pollutants while deployed to the Middle East and elsewhere. These included cancers of the head and neck. The new research will focus solely on leukemias and multiple myeloma that originated elsewhere in the body.
While the three conditions are not yet listed as presumptive conditions, meaning that afflicted veterans would be eligible for expedited claims processing without having to prove their illness is linked to military service, the VA encourages diagnosed veterans to file a claim and not wait for the outcome of the research.
"Veterans shouldn't wait for this review process to conclude to apply for the support they deserve," said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in a statement. "If you are a veteran living with acute leukemia, chronic leukemia or multiple myeloma, don't wait -- apply for your VA care and benefits today."
Multiple myeloma, a type of blood plasma cancer, has been listed as a presumptive condition for veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War era and for former service members assigned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, from August 1953 to December 1987.
Adult leukemias also are on the presumptive conditions list for Camp Lejeune veterans.
Prior to passage of the PACT Act, the VA contracted out its studies for determining whether a health condition possibly was related to military service. The legislation cemented a new process that allows the VA to examine the available data and research as well as VA claims data to establish new presumptive conditions.
According to the VA, the three conditions were chosen for review based on input from veterans, veterans service organizations, members of Congress and health care experts, as well as available scientific data.
They are the first conditions to be announced for such a review since the passage of the PACT Act.
VA officials said that more than 700,000 veterans have applied for benefits under the legislation, which greatly expanded health care and disability benefits for post-9/11 veterans exposed to burn pits, Persian Gulf War veterans who encountered environmental pollutants, and veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
Since the law was signed on Aug. 10, the VA has distributed more than $1.6 billion in disability compensation and benefits to qualified veterans or their survivors.
The VA has been urging veterans and survivors to file disability claims under the PACT Act before Aug. 9 to ensure that, if they are awarded disability benefits, they will receive compensation backdated to Aug. 10, 2022.
Veterans also may file "intent to file" paperwork before Aug. 9 to establish a claim date and, if their claim is substantiated within a year, will receive backdated disability benefits.
They may still apply for disability compensation at any time after Aug. 10 if they develop a condition they believe is service-related under the PACT Act. Any awarded benefits would be backdated to the date the claim was filed.
Veterans who do not have a presumptive illness but have a health condition they believe is connected to their military service may apply for disability compensation and benefits, but they are required to furnish proof of service connection. The VA decides those claims on a case-by-case basis.
The VA has held numerous events at facilities nationwide to highlight the PACT Act, beginning last March and going through the first week of August. Kenesha Britton, assistant deputy under secretary for benefits, said the gatherings, including roughly 130 Summer VetFests, have reached 1 million veterans, caregivers and their families.
"We're not just focusing on benefits. We're focusing on access to health care, making sure that those PACT Act veterans also know what services are very available to them from the National Cemetery [Administration], not just in the time of need but in advance so that they can make plans and long-term decisions about their final resting place," Britton said during a press call with reporters Monday.
Regarding the new study on presumptive conditions, the VA is soliciting public comment over the proposal via the Federal Register. Officials encouraged interested parties to weigh in.
"We won't rest until we understand whether there's a connection between these deadly conditions and the service of our nation's heroes," McDonough said in a statement.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.