Starting at the beginning of the year, the office of Veterans Affairs began processing claims relating to the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT Act. This is a piece of legislation that expands health care for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances. Shepherd Snyder spoke to Patrick Zondervan, acting director of the Huntington VA Regional Office, on what that means for West Virginia veterans.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Snyder: For those who might not know, can you tell me a little bit about what the PACT Act is and how it affects veterans’ health care?
Zondervan: Absolutely. The PACT Act is a historic new law that expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances. This law helps us to provide generations of veterans and their survivors with the care and benefits they’ve earned. This is perhaps the largest expansion of the veterans benefit in history, and it will empower VA to deliver care and benefits to millions of veterans who are exposed to toxic substances in the military.
Snyder: What happens to folks as a result of this kind of exposure to burn pits, and Agent Orange and other kinds of toxic substances?
Zondervan: When veterans served our country, many of them were exposed to toxic hazards, things like toxic air, radiation, smoke, Agent Orange, burn pits and other environmental hazards. Depending on a variety of factors, a person may experience health effects related to this exposure, things like waste burned, proximity, amount of time and frequency of exposure, perhaps things like wind direction and other weather related factors and the presence of other airborne or environmental hazards in the area.
Snyder: Why is this piece of legislation so important? And why does it matter for veterans and the families of veterans who are benefiting from this piece of legislation?
Zondervan: So, again, it will empower the VA to deliver the care and the benefits to millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances while in the military, and their survivors. When a veteran files for a VA disability claim, they can provide supporting evidence that their disability is connected to the military service. For many health conditions, veterans need to provide evidence such as medical records, supporting statements, etc., to prove that their military service caused the condition. But the PACT Act expands benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances, and adds a list of health conditions that the VA can now automatically assume, or presume, are caused by exposure to these substances, and remove that burden for the veteran. Additionally, with the PACT Act, veterans and their survivors can get toxic, exposure-related benefits and health care they have earned.
Snyder: How commonplace were some of these exposures to burn pits and Agent Orange in some of these conflicts like Vietnam and Gulf War, and I believe Iraq and Afghanistan?
Zondervan: So there were millions and millions of veterans who may have been affected by these toxic exposures. And you know, each veteran’s scenario will be different depending on where they were deployed, or where they were exposed. So that’s why it’s important that veterans file their claim as soon as possible, and that we have the opportunity to review the records to determine if they’re eligible for any sort of disability compensation or additional health benefits.
Snyder: Localizing that number to West Virginia – you mentioned millions of veterans were impacted by this. How many veterans in West Virginia are there, how many have fought in conflicts like the Gulf War or Vietnam and how many veterans are eligible for compensation here in the state?
Zondervan: So there are currently 135,190 veterans living in West Virginia. And of those, 99,994 are wartime veterans and 35,196 are peacetime veterans. So about 44 percent of them served in the Gulf War, about 45 percent of them served in Vietnam, 8 percent in the Korean conflict, and about 2 percent of them served in World War II.
Snyder: Can you talk about where veterans might be able to apply and claim these benefits?
Zondervan: Veterans can go to www.va.gov/pact, and find a lot more information about the PACT Act, and how to file a claim. Again, they can also call us 1-800-MYVA411, which is 1-800-698-2411. There they can learn more about this bill, and what it means for them and their families.
Snyder: Before we end things off here, was there anything else you wanted to mention in closing that we didn’t get to otherwise?
Zondervan: What I’d like to state is first, we at the VA want you as veterans to apply for the PACT Act back benefits and care right now. Second, VA began processing most of our PACT Act related claims of benefits on Jan. 1, so we’ve already started this. That was the earliest date that we could start processing these claims.
If you apply for the PACT Act related benefits before August of this year, 2023, then your benefits will be backdated to August of 2022. So you need to get your claims in as soon as you can. Third, some veterans are worried that applying for PACT Act benefits will perhaps impact their current benefits. But the truth is, if you file a claim, there’s a 97 percent chance that your benefits will either increase or stay the same. So they don’t need to really worry and wait, they need to apply as soon as possible, preferably today.
Fourth, there are people out there who will try to convince veterans that they need to pay someone or use a lawyer to apply for VA benefits. But that’s not true. Applying for the PACT Act benefits is 100 percent free. It’s easy. And you can do it by working directly with the VA or with a Veteran Service Organization.