Despite some technical issues with online submissions, officials are encouraging applications for payouts connected to historic legislation aimed at helping veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service before an important deadline passes.
President Joe Biden signed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — a year ago on Aug. 10, 2022, expanding Department of Veterans Affairs health care benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances.
Although there is no deadline to apply for future claims, veterans and survivors who file or submit an “intent to file” by Aug. 9 may be eligible to have their benefits backdated a year to when the bill was signed. Otherwise, applicants will only be eligible to receive payouts back to their date of filing. (The sign-up link is here.)
As many as one in five veterans living in America today could receive new health care or disability payouts thanks to the measure, Military Times previously reported.
The high influx of interested applicants however has caused technical issues for some veterans and survivors submitting their online intent to file, as well as prolonged wait times for those looking to call the VA, according to VA spokesman Terrence Hayes.
About 18% of individuals who submitted their intent to file received a website error message on Aug. 8, Hayes noted in a release.
“If you received one of these messages, don’t worry! We have logged your intent to file and saved your effective date for benefits,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said on social media.
The VA website for filing a PACT Act claim “is not down,” Hayes said in the release, adding that the department will continue to collect intent to file submissions despite the outgoing error messages.
Lawmakers in Congress, however, are still demanding answers as to what took place.
“I am requesting that VA provide me with daily updates on its efforts to contact veterans to assure them of receipt of their intents to file and provide them with any necessary further information or required next steps,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a letter. Tester added that he wants an overview of what caused the technical difficulties and how VA will address the “weakness in the system” in the future.
The PACT Act creates presumptive-condition status for a list of cancers, respiratory illnesses and additional ailments linked to burn pit exposure and other toxins like Agent Orange for generations of veterans who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the first Gulf War, the Vietnam War and a number of other deployments in between those campaigns.
Since the bill was signed into law, the VA has received nearly 786,000 disability claims under the PACT Act, processed almost 435,000 and approved more than 348,000, The Associated Press reported. About 111,000 veterans who are believed to have experienced toxic exposure have enrolled in VA health care since the law was enacted, the outlet added.
The department has paid out more than $1.4 billion, Military Times previously reported.
“These benefits and services from the PACT Act can be lifesaving,” Biden said in a video message last month, encouraging veterans and family members to apply for the payouts. The president is scheduled to mark the bill signing anniversary at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Aug. 10, according to The Associated Press.
McDonough and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also encouraged veterans to apply in a video message last month, noting that current service members planning to leave the military can also apply for VA disability benefits up to six months before separation.
Advocates and government officials met Aug. 9, offering praise for the bill’s implementation while also eyeing further progress still to be made.
“While there’s a lot to celebrate and recognize that has gone well with the PACT Act implementation, the fight is not over,” former Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin said during the virtual event. “There’s still more to get done and that pressure needs to be there from the veteran community,” he noted, citing the need to accelerate the processing of claims.
One voice in the veteran community who has tirelessly worked to apply that pressure is Rosie Torres, co-founder of the veterans group Burn Pits 360, whose husband suffers from complications from illnesses that began after he was exposed to toxic fumes during service in post-9/11 Iraq.
“It’s a beautiful feeling personally to my family and my husband and I to witness history unfold,” Torres told Military Times regarding the one-year anniversary of the bill signing.
While she applauded the passage of the PACT Act, Torres said there is still work to be done, including receiving more clarity on the recent tech issues, adding additional illnesses to the list of presumptive conditions and expediting the process for diagnosing veterans with various, often invisible wounds of war.
Veterans or their family members can also get information about PACT Act benefits by visiting the VA’s website or by calling 1-800-MYVA411 (1-800-698-2411).
Military Times’ Leo Shane III contributed reporting to this story. Editor’s note: this story was updated on Aug. 10, 2023, with additional links to sign up for benefits.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media