In the last year since the PACT Act went into effect, the Department of Veterans Affairs has expanded benefits and health care to hundreds of thousands of veterans, with more expected to qualify as they develop illnesses related to exposure to burn pits and other battlefield toxins.
By Thursday, the anniversary of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT Act, the VA had received 843,448 claims under the legislation and enrolled 113,719 veterans in VA health care as a result of the law.
The department has distributed $1.85 billion in disability compensation and other benefits to 340,754 eligible veterans or survivors, a number that will increase as the VA processes a half-million pending claims and receives applications from 1.65 million veterans who have submitted an intent to file in the past year.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Thursday that millions of veterans are now receiving health care and compensation for conditions "that followed them home from war."
"We're proud that so many veterans and survivors have already benefited from the PACT Act, but this is just the beginning: We won't rest until every veteran and every survivor gets the VA health care and benefits they deserve," McDonough said in a statement released Thursday.
The PACT Act expanded health care and disability benefits to potentially 6 million veterans exposed to burn pits and other environmental pollution while serving in the Middle East, southeast Asia and elsewhere, including post-9/11, Persian Gulf War and some Vietnam-era veterans -- the largest expansion of VA benefits in decades.
Anticipating an influx of new patients and veterans eligible for disability benefits, the VA embarked on a hiring effort to attract medical providers, as well as claims specialists. It also introduced an automated system to accelerate the claims process for common conditions that warrant disability compensation and to prevent its backlog of claims that are older than 125 days from growing exponentially.
Since the PACT Act was signed on Aug. 10, 2022, the disability claims backlog has grown. In September, it was slightly less than 150,000 claims; it is currently at 272,925 claims but could grow to as much as 730,000 next year.
Veterans who develop an illness related to exposures covered by the legislation or their survivors may file a claim at any time. However, eligible beneficiaries were encouraged to submit a claim or an intent to file a claim by Aug. 9 to receive retroactive benefits to the date that President Joe Biden signed the law last year.
That date has been extended to Aug. 14 as a result of technical issues with the website designed to submit claims and intentions to file claims, according to the VA -- an extension that earned praise from lawmakers shortly after it was announced Thursday but also criticism from those who believe the department should have been better prepared.
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., sent a letter to McDonough saying that the technological glitch that affected roughly 5,600 veterans should not have happened.
"VA's failure to anticipate and prepare for the increased volume of submissions as the PACT Act deadline approached is unacceptable, given that the situation was easily foreseeable as this law is the largest expansion of health care and benefits for veterans in recent history," Bost wrote.
The VA said it has approved PACT Act applications at a rate of roughly four in five claims, with an average assigned disability rating of 70%.
Some veterans have been surprised, however, that they have received 0% disability ratings for some conditions, such as hypertension, which was designated a presumptive condition for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange under the PACT Act.
According to affected veterans who have contacted Military.com, Vietnam-era veterans who have hypertension that is controlled by medication have received a 0% disability rating.
That includes former Army Spc. Jeff O'Malley, a Vietnam veteran whose Freedom of Information Act requests and research led to an understanding of the VA's decision to not count hypertension in a list of new presumptive conditions tied to Agent Orange in 2017.
His hypertension is barely controlled by medication.
"I worked so hard to get this done," O'Malley told Military.com. "It's not just me."
According to data provided to Military.com by the VA, more than one-third of PACT Act disability ratings awards have received a 0% disability rating, meaning that affected veterans are eligible for benefits and services such as health care, federal hiring preferences and travel allowances for VA medical appointments, but not disability compensation.
The 0% disability rating also can lead to a secondary service connection for any condition caused by the originally rated condition, according to VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes.
Hayes said that if hypertension eventually causes cardiovascular disease, then the affected veteran can get service connection for heart disease, which "would likely have a higher rating."
"And if that heart disease causes the veteran's death, the veteran's spouse would be entitled to survivor's benefits," Hayes said.
In addition to the increase in disability claims submissions, more than 113,000 veterans from the PACT Act population have been added to VA health care as a result of the legislation.
Lawmakers and advocates who fought for passage of the PACT Act celebrated the anniversary during a number of events and press conferences Thursday.
Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., said it is important that service members, veterans, physicians and others need to be aware of the potential dangers of battlefield exposures and the benefits that vets and survivors rate as a result of the PACT Act.
His constituent, Air Force veteran Jennifer Kepner, died of pancreatic cancer as a result of exposure to burn pits used to dispose of garbage, chemicals and industrial waste in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"Her story fueled my anger, my passion to get this legislation passed for all veterans," Ruiz said, noting that the president's son, former Army National Guard Maj. Beau Biden, was stationed at the same base as Kepner in Iraq and died of brain cancer linked to burn pit exposure.
"We got it done," Ruiz said during a press conference alongside the Kepner family.
During an event in Salt Lake City marking the anniversary Thursday, President Biden emphasized the act's importance in helping veterans and survivors, including Robinson's wife and daughter, and praised those who worked on the law.
"Everyone who fought so hard, came together to keep promises to the veterans, to keep faith for our heroes. That's courage. That's character," Biden said. "There is nothing beyond our capacity when we decide to work together to get it done. We never fail when we do that."
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on X and Threads @patriciakime.