One year ago, Congress passed, and the president signed into law, landmark legislation to deliver care to veterans and survivors living with toxic wounds of war. The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act fulfills the promise made to the men and women who served in our nation’s uniform by expanding eligibility for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and health care to those who were exposed to toxic substances such as Agent Orange and burn pits during their military service. I was proud to champion this legislation and help secure its passage. I’m now channeling the same determination to provide oversight for its implementation and make sure veterans are aware of the new earned benefits.
Veterans and survivors must file a claim before August 9 to be eligible for retroactive compensation. Post-9/11 combat veterans discharged more than 10 years ago and not enrolled in VA health care must enroll by October 1 to avoid a phased-in enrollment.
The VA and Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) have been leading efforts to spread the word about enrollment timelines.
In written testimony to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee (SVAC) in late July, VA leaders responsible for implementing the law called the promotion “the largest coordinated outreach campaign in VA history.”
Since its enactment, the VA has received more than 744,000 PACT Act-related claims, including more than 8,700 in Arkansas. Millions of other veterans may qualify to receive benefits under this law but have yet to file a claim.
In recent days, the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System hosted a PACT Act event in North Little Rock to help veterans identify potential exposure to toxins during their military service and file clams. It’s hosted similar outreach efforts in other areas of the state. The Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks has also launched initiatives in locations throughout Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley to inform veterans about the benefit.
To prepare the VA for the increase in toxic exposure claims and additional veterans eligible for benefits, the PACT Act included measures to bolster recruitment and retention of the workforce, especially in rural areas. This included new ways to incentivize health care professionals to practice at VA medical facilities.
The additional tools are making a big difference in the delivery of health care. VA workforce data show the number of employees at the Veterans Health Administration has grown nearly five percent this year, the highest annual growth rate in more than 15 years.The PACT Act represents the largest expansion of VA benefits in decades. While hundreds of thousands of veterans have filed claims for services and care allowed under the law, many more have yet to participate. We need an all hands-on-deck approach to share information with veterans in our communities who may have been denied a toxic exposure-related claim to file again. It is my hope Arkansas will join this effort and share this with veterans in their families, neighborhoods and churches to make sure these heroes know about the earned benefits available to them so they can file a claim as soon as possible.