HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. — An Act from 2022 expands health care benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances starting Jan. 1, 2023.
The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promises to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, known as the PACT Act, or Honoring our PACT Act of 2022, expands enrollment periods for health care benefits and recognizes conditions and illnesses such as asthma and cancer that are difficult to connect to toxic exposure during military service, particularly in veterans who served after Sept.11, 2001.
The act helps veterans get diagnosed, in many cases, a long time after initial exposure. In addition, the law supplies funding to allow Veterans Affairs officials to further research toxic exposure, train VA personnel and provide services to veterans to ensure they receive the care they deserve.
What is a presumption?
The PACT Act uses presumption for officials to assume something about a veteran based on their service record. The PACT Act presumes that because a veteran served in certain places at certain times, namely where there was a risk of exposure to environmental hazards, and was then diagnosed with certain diseases, the illness is a result of the veteran’s service.
This is important for veterans filing claims through the VA, because it could otherwise be difficult to prove that a disease or diagnosis is service-connected.
Receiving a presumption results in less paperwork and fewer physical exams for veterans to complete before being granted access to VA health care and disability compensation.
The full list of illnesses and areas covered is available at www.va.gov/resources/the-pact-act-and-your-va-benefits/.
Who can qualify for a presumption?
The PACT Act creates presumption of service-connected illness for service members exposed to burn pits; those who served at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; in the Gulf War and Southwest Asia; and those who served during the Vietnam War-era.
Specific dates and locations can be found on the VA website above.
Members who served in Operations Desert Storm, Desert Shield, New Dawn, or Iraqi Freedom/Enduring Freedom, are also encouraged to register with the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, regardless of whether they believe they were exposed to airborne hazards.
For information regarding relevant health risks, visit www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/burnpits/registry.asp.
What else is new in the PACT Act?
In addition to new presumptions, the VA is now providing medical exams for previous toxic-exposure-related claims that were deemed to have insufficient evidence for compensation.
The VA also must investigate and conduct outreach to claimants previously denied who would now qualify. Veterans who previously had claims denied can now reapply for compensation without waiting for a VA representative to contact them.
Additional changes impact post-9/11 combat veterans, who will now have ten years after discharge to enroll in VA health care. Before, those serving after Jan. 27, 2003, had five years to make a claim. This means more people have greater opportunity to make a claim, including those with post-9/11 service prior to 2003. There is also a one-year open enrollment period for anyone whose eligibility does not fall within that window. For example, a post-9/11 combat veteran discharged over ten years ago, whose deadline to submit a claim had originally passed, now has another year to file starting Jan. 1, 2023.
The definition of a Persian Gulf Veteran for purposes of making a claim is expanded to include service in Afghanistan, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.
Additional presumptive service connections were created to include an extensive list of dates and locations from the 1950s onward. For example, participants in certain chemical or nuclear cleanup efforts, or times and places where a veteran may have been exposed to Agent Orange, are now eligible under the PACT Act.
When does it take effect?
Veterans are encouraged to file for benefits now. The VA will backdate benefits awarded to veterans who had previously submitted applications to the date the claim was filed.
As for the considerable number of new diseases that the law will now cover, they will become effective in waves until the full list is enacted on Oct. 1, 2025, giving the VA time to process each condition.
How to file a claim under the PACT Act
If veterans have not yet filed a claim for a presumptive condition, individuals can file a new claim online, by mail, in person or with the help of a trained Department of Veterans Affairs professional. To file a claim online, visit www.va.gov/disability/file-disability-claim-form-21-526ez/introduction.
To file a claim by mail, fill out VA Form 21-526EZ and mail it to: Department of Veterans Affairs Claims Intake Center, P.O. Box 4444, Janesville, Wisconsin, 53547-4444.
Individuals can also bring a physical copy of VA Form 21-526EZ to their local VA regional office. The regional office for Massachusetts is located at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building at 15 New Sudbury St., Boston, Massachusetts, 02203.
A complete list of regional VA offices can be found at www.benefits.va.gov/benefits/offices.asp.
Personnel can also request the help of an accredited attorney, claims agent or a Veterans Service Officer to help file a claim or appeal at www.va.gov/disability/get-help-filing-claim/.
If the VA previously denied a disability claim that could now be reconsidered as presumptive, veterans can file a supplement claim to have the VA revisit the case. The VA form for a supplemental claim is VA Form 20-0995. Find the form and more information about it at www.va.gov/find-forms/about-form-20-0995/.
For additional information on whether a veteran is covered under the PACT Act, contact the Hanscom Legal Office or 781-225-1410 or a local VA regional office.