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VA officials are raising awareness of expanded healthcare and benefits for veterans exposed to toxins

 Service members dispose of materials in a burn pit.
woundedtimes.blogspot.com
Service members dispose of materials in a burn pit.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT Act) is a law enacted last August. It expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, burn pits, and other toxic substances. Wyoming Public Radio’s Hugh Cook spoke with Michael Elbrecht of the Sheridan VA system, which covers three quarters of the state, about how this legislation affects Wyoming veterans.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Michael Elbrecht: The PACT Act was a law that was passed by Congress last August. 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 a large exposure, as well as in the Middle East to the burn pits and the radiation from the depleted uranium from the Gulf War. That's basically what the presumptive conditions revolve around.

Hugh Cook: This is one of the biggest expansions of those benefits in like three decades?

ME: Absolutely. We haven't seen anything like this, I can't even begin to remember a time where we've seen something like this. 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[s] 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.

HC: With the PACT Act, does that expand the eligibility and the timeline for these benefits?

ME: Yes. So not only does it expand their eligibility timeline… so normally, when you get to have a service or come back as a Guard or reserve member from a deployment, you're eligible for six years of VA healthcare to make sure that you're taken care of during that transition period. What this does is it also allows veterans with these presumptive conditions. For example, [with] Agent Orange, hypertension is the big one that came out, so anybody that has hypertension as a diagnosis, now they can apply for VA benefits through the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and get a compensatory payment every month for that disability. For the Gulf War, it's a lot of sinus problems: sinusitis, rhinitis. Those are the two big ones, where a lot of veterans are coming back complaining about asthma, sinus problems, just breathing problems in general. The VA found out that's due to the silica particulate within the sand over there, and [service members] breathing it all the time. Now we go out and all these veterans that have these problems now can get, A, paid for it, and B, eligible for healthcare.

HC: What does it mean to have a presumptive condition for toxic exposure?

ME: So the presumptive condition is if you have a diagnosis for this, the VA is going to assume that it was due to your deployment to these locations. Whereas before, the way it worked is you get out of the military, you have, let's say, a bad knee, you have to prove that that bad knee is due to your time in service. Now we're taking away the veterans’ portion of having to prove it and we're just going to assume that it was due to being at this location [and exposed to toxic substances].

HC: Since that law was passed last August, has there been an increase in applications for these benefits?

ME: Very much so. I can't speak as far as the VBA side of things [but] right now, we have screened 6,400 veterans in the state of Wyoming for toxic exposure. Of those 6,400, nearly 3,000 have answered yes to a question that shows that they are exposed. We have referred them for follow-on care for those exposures. We have done at this point 264 environmental health burn pit exams and nearly the same amount of Agent Orange exams. And January of 2022 is when we started.

HC: For someone who would like to apply for these benefits but isn't quite sure how to do so, what is the first step that they should take?

ME: [The] first step is to reach out to myself. My phone number is (307) 675-3482. I will get you started on the process of applying for benefits, and I can also, as a veteran myself who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can walk you down the path of how to apply for these other benefits through the Veterans Benefits Administration.

HC: For those who do receive benefits, could you explain what some of those entail?

ME: The benefits, so not only just for healthcare, but let's say you're getting disability for hypertension, you're receiving this monthly amount of money from the VBA and you pass away from hypertension. Now, that benefit goes on to your spouse and or your children because you passed away from that disability. So, these things are not just for the veteran themselves, but for their family members as well.

HC: And how long would those benefits stay with their families? For the longevity of the spouse's life or what does that look like?

ME: Until they [the spouse] pass themselves, it continues on. There's children of people who are exposed to Agent Orange who receive disability from the VA because of their parents’ exposure. If I pass away tomorrow because of asthma, my spouse and my daughter will continue to get my benefit payments as well as healthcare for themselves.

HC: Is there anything else that you'd like to add or expand upon?

ME: My biggest thing is I would like veterans to come out and come talk to me, ask the questions. There's a lot of veterans who may not think that they're eligible and are. And let's say they were turned down before at some point in the past. Come talk to me again, because there's a lot of avenues now where I can get you enrolled and make you eligible. [Before] August 9, a veteran needs to put in a claim for any of these presumptive conditions. They can do it at any point, but if they do it before August 9, it’s retroactive for 12 months. So, let's say you get a 50 percent disability rating, which is roughly a grand or so a month. That's going to go back for 12 months, so that's $12,000 that they're going to receive on the first payment.

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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