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Veterans Celebrate One-Year Anniversary of Expanded Benefits for Toxic Exposure

Nicole Leger always saw the burn pits at military bases in Afghanistan as nothing more than campfires. But little did she know, the exposure to the toxic fumes from those burn pits would later cause health issues for her. Leger, a former U.S. Army medic, initially didn’t realize the dangers associated with burn pits and continued disposing of documents in them. However, after returning home, she started experiencing sinus problems and difficulty breathing. It was only after President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act into law last year that Leger’s monthly disability payments expanded to include the impact of the burn pits. Now, she and her fiancé have moved into a larger home, providing a better life for their four children.

Leger is just one of many veterans benefiting from the largest expansion of veterans assistance in decades. As the first anniversary of the law approaches, the Biden administration is urging veterans to apply for benefits under the PACT Act. The law presumes certain cancers and ailments to be connected to exposure to burn pits, allowing veterans to receive disability payments for those conditions. Additionally, the law added hypertension and other conditions to the list of problems presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange for Vietnam War veterans.

Since the enactment of the PACT Act, the Department of Veterans Affairs has received nearly 786,000 disability claims, processed over 435,000, and approved more than 348,000. Over 111,000 veterans with potential toxic exposure have enrolled in VA health care, and more than 4.1 million veterans have completed toxic screenings to determine the need for further tests.

Implementing the legislation has posed challenges for the VA, leading to a backlog of approximately 266,000 claims. This backlog is expected to grow to 450,000 in October. To address this, the VA has increased its outreach efforts, spending $7.5 million on advertising and hosting events nationwide. Comedian Jon Stewart, who played a significant role in advocating for the PACT Act, has also contributed by posting videos on social media.

Despite the backlog, the VA has made progress in processing claims faster and hiring more staff. However, VA Secretary Denis McDonough acknowledges that there is still work to be done in ensuring every eligible veteran knows about the benefits available to them.

The PACT Act is not only an important milestone for veterans but also a personal victory for President Biden, who witnessed the devastating effects of toxic exposure on his eldest son, Beau. McDonough believes that the PACT Act signifies a turning point for the VA in terms of agility, robustness, and competitiveness.

While there is room for improvement in the VA’s efficiency, the PACT Act has provided relief for veterans like Marcellus Beasley, who felt that the VA was not supportive in the past. With the expansion of benefits, Beasley’s disability claim for his psoriasis was approved, making a significant impact on his life.

Beyond veterans, surviving family members have also benefited from the PACT Act. Ailyn Colby, whose husband served in Iraq and later died of colon cancer, initially faced challenges in receiving survivor benefits. However, when she reapplied under the PACT Act, her claim was approved, providing her with much-needed support.

As veterans celebrate the one-year anniversary of the expanded benefits for toxic exposure, it is crucial to continue raising awareness of the available resources and improving the efficiency of the claims process. The sacrifice and service of our veterans deserve to be recognized and supported so that they can lead fulfilling lives post-military service.

Unique Perspective:
The expansion of benefits for toxic exposure is a significant step forward in acknowledging and addressing the health issues faced by veterans. It is essential to not only focus on providing financial support but also to invest in research and preventive measures to minimize future exposure risks. Additionally, continuous improvement of the claims process and reducing backlog should remain a priority to ensure that veterans receive the support they deserve in a timely manner.

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