Veterans Affairs staffers immediately will begin processing new toxic exposure claims for veterans facing terminal illnesses, three weeks before other cases already pending in the system.

Officials said the move will ensure that veterans facing life-threatening conditions will “receive their earned benefits and health care on the earliest possible date.” About 2,500 veterans are expected to be affected by the move.

“These veterans have stepped up to serve our country in the times when we needed them most, and now it’s our job to step up for them,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in a statement. “It’s the right thing to do to get these heroes the world-class healthcare and benefits they’ve earned as soon as possible, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Since the summer, more than 176,000 veterans have applied for VA benefits under the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act).

The legislation provides for presumptive benefit status for 12 types of cancer and 12 other respiratory illnesses linked to burn pit exposure in the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq; hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) for veterans who served in Vietnam; and radiation-related illnesses for veterans who served in several new locations in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Presumptive status for service-connected illnesses cuts down on the paperwork veterans are required to file to receive monthly disability benefits, which can total several thousand dollars a month.

Payout of those benefits originally was scheduled to be phased in over the next few years, but administration officials over the summer announced plans to start processing the PACT Act claims on Jan. 1, 2023, in an effort to get veterans care and financial support quicker.

The latest announcement moves that timeline up even further for some of the most vulnerable veterans. Individuals who reported facing life-threatening conditions will have their files worked immediately, and some could see disability payouts start within a few days.

Department officials said after Jan. 1, when all cases begin to be processed, staff will continue claims involving terminally ill veterans because of the time issues involved.

In addition, the department will prioritize “claims filed by veterans with cancer, veterans experiencing homelessness, veterans older than 85 years old, veterans experiencing financial hardship, and Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipients.”

VA leaders have warned that sorting through the tens of thousands of new claims will take time, and some veterans may not see payouts for several months or more.

However, they have also promised in recent congressional testimony that they are hiring more staff to handle the flood of new claims, and are confident in their ability to handle the workload.

Saturday marked the start of a “week of action” on the PACT Act benefits throughout the VA medical system, with events in all 50 states designed to highlight potential benefits for veterans included in the new law.

Congressional staff estimated that as many as one in every five living veterans in America today could benefit from the PACT Act’s sweeping provisions.

Veterans who believe they may be eligible for new health care services or benefits can visit or call 1-800-MYVA411 (1-800-698-2411) for additional information.

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.

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