The VA is facing a growing number of claims as a key PACT Act deadline approaches
The law passed last year makes millions of veterans eligible for new benefits, including post 9/11 vets who were exposed to burn pits.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is receiving a rush of applicants ahead of a major deadline for the PACT Act.
The law made more than 3.5 million veterans eligible for additional health benefits, including post-9/11 veterans who may be interacting with the VA for the first time. Veterans and their survivors have an extra incentive to apply for PACT Act benefits by August 9. Claims filed before that date will be eligible for a year of retroactive compensation backdated to August 10, 2022.
The VA will still accept claims after the August 9 deadline, but those won't be eligible for retroactive benefits.
Some people who work with veterans organizations worry the deadline will create a large backlog of VA claims and long wait times for claimants.
“It’s going to get overwhelming," said Hugh Reid, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who volunteers as a veterans service officer at American Legion Post 327 in Norfolk, Virginia. "Of course, they had to do more hiring to accommodate all of that. But it can be problematic because when you get more claims, it means more paperwork is going in."
The VA had reduced its long-standing claims backlog, which dates back several years and got worse during the pandemic. Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs told Military.com that the number of disability claims now is expected to rise to 400,000 before it starts to gradually drop again.
The VA has pledged to hire 2,000 more people nationwide, but it also relies on a nationwide army of independent volunteers such as Reid, who are trained to help veterans file claims.
At Post 327, which holds a walk-in clinic three days a week for claimants, veteran Service Officer Eric Isaksen said it's not as easy for service organizations to match the VA’s hiring with new volunteers, so some vets are having to wait for appointments.
“To be a good service officer, it's hard to work a full time job and do this. And so you got to be retired,” Isaksen said.
When Congress passed the PACT Act last August, it made disability benefits available for a range of new conditions related to exposure to burn pits, radiation, and other toxins. So far, hypertension is the most common claim under the PACT Act. representing more than 100,000 of the nearly 400,000 claims. That's because the law now grants benefits for hypertension as another condition tied to Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used in Vietnam.
While people who served in the Vietnam War era have been quick to apply, some advocates said the VA should do more outreach to recent veterans.
“Meeting the veterans where they are, reaching the veterans in their local communities," suggested Kaitlynne Yancy of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “So food banks, community centers - anywhere that you can think of - the local grocery store, just putting out information and making sure that it's as inclusive as humanly possible.”
Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans are the target for most of the new law. It acknowledges for the first time the long term health impact of burn pits.
Eric Hall served the Army in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, where he was around troops incinerating nearly everything. Car batteries, dead animals, and even human waste were among the things mixed with jet fuel and burned.
“And you have to literally sit there and stir,” Hall said. “It's not a set and forget type thing. So, yeah, being over there at the time, you were exposed to a lot of those exposures.”
Originally, Hall didn’t associate his chronic pneumonia and asthma with his experience in Iraq, which is not uncommon among younger veterans.
“As an infantry guy, you just push through it," he said. "It was one of the same issues we had to get people to recognize they had PTSD."
When he did finally apply for benefits, the VA turned him down. He’s now appealing.
“I'm hoping this is not a sign of things to follow," he said. "This is supposed to be super streamlined. It's supposed to be assumed to be service connected."
So far, veteran organizations which fought for the benefits for years are giving the VA relatively high marks for its claims handling process. But they said August 9 will represent a next test for how well the VA is able to handle the surge.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.