Starting Tuesday, all patients visiting Veterans Affairs health care facilities will undergo new toxic exposure screenings in an effort to monitor for signs of illness and inform veterans that they may qualify for new benefits.
The five-minute screening will involve a series of simple questions regarding veterans’ time in service, possible exposure to toxic chemicals and current health status.
Veterans will undergo the screening during their first visit after Nov. 8 (regardless of the reason for the visit) but will not repeat the questions on follow-up appointments. Officials plan to conduct the screening for every patient once every five years.
“These screenings are an important step toward making sure that all toxic exposed veterans get the care and benefits they deserve,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “At the end of the day, these screenings will improve health outcomes for veterans, and there’s nothing more important than that.”
During a demonstration for the media last week, a VA physician started his regular patient check up with the new screening script, which includes information about the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act).
That legislation — signed into law by President Joe Biden in August — establishes presumptive benefit status for 12 types of cancer and 12 other respiratory illnesses linked to burn pit exposure in the Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It also provides additional benefits for veterans with hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) linked to service in Vietnam and similar help for radiation-related illnesses among veterans who served in various places in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Payouts for those benefits won’t begin until early next year. But VA officials have reported that 113,000 veterans have already applied for disability compensation under the law.
Veterans groups have estimated that as many as one in every five veterans in America may receive new benefits or medical care through the law. The screening is designed to help spread information about that, and ease the process of determining what veterans may qualify for.
Department officials conducted a pilot screening program in September, involving more than 19,000 veterans. Of the group, 37% expressed concern about toxic exposure injuries linked to their service.
In a recent press conference, McDonough said the information collected through the screenings will also help steer department research on toxic exposure illnesses.
The screenings will only be conducted by VA physicians at VA facilities, department officials said. Veterans using community care for medical appointments outside of the VA system will not participate in the new screening procedures.
Veterans who want more information on illnesses covered by the PACT Act or who want to apply for disability benefits can visit the VA web site or call 1-800-MY-VA-411 (1-800-698-2411).
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.