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Veterans exposed to toxins should enroll for PACT Act benefits by Wednesday's deadline

Building with American Flag and trees in front
St. Petersburg VA Regional Office
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Courtesy
The St. Petersburg VA Regional Office will help process retroactive disability benefits until Wednesday under the PACT Act.

While new claims can be filed afterward, those who make the cutoff could receive additional benefits or compensation backdated to Aug. 10, 2022, when the act was signed.

Wednesday marks a year since the PACT Act was signed into law. It's also an important deadline for veterans who want to enroll for its benefits.

While new claims can be filed after the deadline, those who make the Wednesday cutoff could receive additional benefits or compensation backdated to Aug. 10, 2022, when the act was signed.

Veterans Affairs officials and advocates are urging service members or their surviving family members to take advantage of the opportunity and file even if they aren't sure if they'll qualify or if they were previously denied.

That's because the PACT Act expands the number of presumptive conditions and also eases the filing process to encompass a greater number of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances, such as Agent Orange and burn pits, during their service.

Local Vietnam War veteran Dave Braun fought for the passage of the PACT Act. The disabled veteran stressed the importance for service members to enroll in the VA health care system.

"The law helps us provide generations of veterans and survivors with care and benefits that they earned and they deserve," said Braun. "It's really a wide-reaching act for us veterans. It includes things like brain cancer, respiratory situations ... even hypertension is included, which really includes a lot of people."

Potential enrollees can first provide an "intent-to-file" if they're not sure what to claim, according to VA officials.

"It's to say, 'I'm going to file a claim,' and it puts your place in line on that effective date," said Julianna Boor, executive director for the VA Regional Office in St. Petersburg. "If we have that by Aug. 9 and that particular veteran is determined to be entitled to benefits, we may be able to go back the whole year for retroactive benefits."

What is the PACT Act?

The act is formally known as "SFC Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics," and is named for Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died in 2020 from toxic exposure as a result of his military service in Iraq.

According to the White House's fact sheet, the PACT Act helps deliver more timely benefits and services to more than 5 million veterans, and is the most significant expansion for toxic-exposed veterans in more than 30 years.

One of the bill's provisions removed the need to prove service connection if they are diagnosed with one of 23 specific conditions. That reduces the amount of paperwork and exams veterans must complete before being granted access to health care and disability compensation.

Survivors of veterans who died due to one of the conditions are also eligible for benefits.

"There's a list of 20-plus different conditions. If that is one of the conditions that you have, and you served in one of the locations at the time that's listed, those two things are now presumed to have a link together," Boor explained. "All those things reduce the burden on veterans."

Other priorities in the legislation require expanding research on veterans' health trends and ensuring veterans are screened regularly for toxic exposure.

That includes requiring the VA to conduct new studies of veterans who served in Southwest Asia during the Gulf War and analyses of post-9/11 veterans' health trends.

The law also requires the VA to establish an outreach program for veterans and implement additional toxic exposure related education and training for VA personnel.

How many veterans might be affected?

There are about 170,000 veterans in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Florida is home to the third largest veteran population in the U.S. In the state, over 66,000 claims have been filed and about $147 million have been paid out so far, according to Boor.

Boor notes that, nationwide, between 1.4 million to 1.7 million claims are filed each year. Under the PACT Act alone, 800,000 claims have been filed.

Over $1.8 million has been paid out to veterans and their families throughout the country.

"So it's a very impactful piece of legislation," said Boor.

Braun urged veterans to talk to their local veteran service officer if they're not sure how to apply or if they qualify.

"It's very important that a veteran sign up immediately," said Braun. "If you've never done this before with the VA, open up a new file and investigate your ailments."

File a disability claim online at www.va.gov/resources/the-pact-act-and-your-va-benefits or visit the VA Regional Office, 9500 Bay Pines Blvd., St. Petersburg.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.