The PACT Act, or the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 is a bill that directly addresses the impact on veterans and others who were exposed to environmental toxins, burn pits, radiation, and Agent Orange due to their time in service.
Named in honor of Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, an Ohio National Guard service member who died in 2020 due to exposure to toxic chemicals, this bill is a bipartisan effort led by U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Jerry Moran to expand coverage, treatments, and resources to sick veterans and others who were impacted by toxins due to service in the U.S. military. The House of Representatives voted 256 to 174 to pass this bill in March 2022, and the Senate passed it as well with a vote of 84 to 14.
The bill is the largest legislative expansion of VA services and health care for veterans in recent history, and takes its name from Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, who served in Kosovo and Iraq in the early 2000s. Robinson died in 2020 from a rare form of lung cancer. Like many veterans, Robinson was exposed to toxins during his service from football-field-sized burn pits that the military used to dispose of waste.
At the heart of the bill is treatment for veterans such as Robinson, whose condition was likely caused by his toxic exposure during service, but who struggled to obtain treatment due to administrative hoops. Among its many changes, the PACT Act better codifies the VA’s process of evaluating toxic service exposures and connecting them to the conditions veterans have.
The PACT Act does a number of specific things that will allow greater care to veterans and others who have been impacted by exposure to harmful toxins, while also improving the VA’s processes and ability to determine presumptive conditions due to harmful exposure.
Broken up into 9 sections, the bill first focuses on the expansion of health care for specific categories of veterans who were exposed to toxins. This includes hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care.
Second, it will work to improve the ability of the VA to establish presumptions of service connection based on toxic exposures. By better codifying the VA’s process for identifying the cause and effect of environmental exposures, the PACT Act also expands the list of presumptive conditions for toxic exposures. Veterans who develop one of the presumptive conditions will no longer have to prove the connection between their exposure and disease, and instead will be extended VA services based on their dates and locations of service.
Specifically, the Act adds 23 conditions the VA will recognize for post-9/11 veterans exposed to burn pits, including 11 respiratory diseases and several forms of cancer. Survivors of veterans who have died from these presumptive conditions may also receive benefits.
The Act expands the covered conditions and possible locations of service for Vietnam-era veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange, as well as expanding coverage for the effects of radiation on veterans who served in specific locations during the Cold War.
The PACT Act could affect more than 5 million veterans, giving them expanded benefits and easier access. In anticipation of this broadened outreach, the Act also provides funding for the VA to establish 31 new health clinics and research facilities, and will require the VA to expand its staff and specifically train team members about the health effects of toxic exposure.
Additionally, the Act requires the VA to screen current and new enrollees for toxic exposure criteria, and educate all veterans on the benefits available to them.
The bill will also work to improve the establishment of a service connection process for toxic-exposed veterans. Additional presumptions of service connection for veterans who participated in cleanup and nuclear response teams, which exposed them to harmful radiations, as well as those exposed to Agent Orange in specific locations, to include Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll.
The bill will work further to improve federal research on toxic exposure and the harmful impact it can have. Improvements in training and resource allocations to the VA to assist veterans exposed to toxins will be implemented and will work to enhance the VA claims process by improving capacity and automation.
Additionally, the VA will conduct epidemiological studies, biennial briefings on individual longitudinal exposure records, and address errors in exposure records made by the military and veterans. This section also directly addresses the issue of Camp Lejeune contamination and provides a means of seeking compensation due to that exposure. Finally, the bill addresses how it will work to improve the workforce of the VA by implementing a new hiring plan, and improvements in internal practices.
Ultimately, the Act instructs the VA to take a more proactive approach to adding presumptive benefits. Often, veterans’ evidence that they were exposed to toxic chemicals is strong, but it has historically been difficult for them to definitively prove that their service exposure caused their health disabilities. Under the Act, the VA will take a more presumptive approach.
For instance, before the PACT Act, over 240,000 veterans signed up for the VA’s burn-pit registry but nearly 70% of claims were denied. By expanding the list of diseases presumed to have been caused by toxic exposures like burn pits and Agent Orange, veterans who served in Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, the Cold War, and post-9/11 will receive quicker access to the benefits they earned by their service.
The PACT Act ultimately will provide more funding to expand benefits and outreach to the veterans who are suffering from having given their health in service of our country, and to their surviving family members. To find out if you or your family could benefit from the PACT Act legislation, contact the team at Berry Law today.
This monumental bill is estimated to cost nearly $300 billion over the next decade. As stated by President Joe Biden, “this legislation makes good on our sacred obligation to care for veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.” This bill will hopefully be a welcomed opportunity for veterans to seek the benefits that to this point have been out of reach.
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