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Wyoming VA officials say there are expanded benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs seal
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Wyoming VA officials are raising awareness of the expanded benefits for veterans under the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, a law enacted last August. It expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, burn pits, and other toxic substances.

“It basically provides presumptive conditions for veterans who either served during Vietnam, served during the Gulf War, or served post 9/11 in the Middle East. It provides some coverage for Agent Orange exposure, as well as in the Middle East to the burn pits and the radiation from the depleted uranium for the Gulf War,” said Michael Elbrecht, enrollment and eligibility coordinator for the Sheridan VA Medical Center system, which covers three quarters of Wyoming.

The PACT Act is a major expansion of benefits that hasn’t been undertaken in several decades.

“We haven't seen anything like this, I can't even begin to remember a time where we're seeing something like this,” he said. “This opens up the doors for veterans who are deployed, not necessarily hurt, per se, but it opens up the doors for all the exposures that we had, while being over there to those burn pits around the depleted uranium, those type of things. And it also opens up the doors for a lot of [National] Guard and reserve folks who normally wouldn't necessarily be eligible for VA benefits or if they were for only a certain amount of time.”

Elbrecht said that the PACT Act expands the eligibility timeline for benefits for those returning to civilian life from six years after leaving the armed forces or coming back from deployment as a member of a reserve or National Guard unit.

Elbrecht added that other service-related health issues, such as breathing or respiratory issues that Gulf War veterans have experienced due to high silica levels in the sand where they were stationed, are eligible for benefits as well. Prior to the PACT Act, to receive benefits, veterans had to prove that an injury was incurred during or because of military service.

“We're taking away the veteran’s portion of having to prove it and we're just going to assume that it was due to being at this location, so [it’s] making the process much simpler,” he said.

Since the PACT Act went into effect, there has been a significant increase in Wyoming veterans that have applied for benefits.

“We have screened 6,400 veterans in the state of Wyoming for toxic exposure [and] of those 6,400, nearly 3,000 have answered yes to a question that shows that they [were] exposed, and we have referred them for follow on care for those exposures,” Elbrecht said. “We have done at this point 264 environmental health burn pit exams and nearly the same amount of Agent Orange exams, and we started this program [in] January of 2022, is where we started.”

Benefits may be passed on to a veteran’s spouse or children if they happen to die from a VA-recognized disability. These benefits also continue for the lifetime of the spouse as well, though rules differ on benefits passed on to children. Elbrecht asked veterans to contact the VA to determine if they qualify for expanded benefits under the PACT Act.

More information on the PACT Act can be found by calling 1-800-698-2411. Elbrecht can be reached at (307) 675-3482 for those who have questions about benefits or eligibility.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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