Hutchinson Leader

By Brent S

Congressional action last year expanded health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances.

Now, the Veterans Administration and local veterans service officers are trying to get the word out to veterans, especially those who served in the Gulf War and Afghanistan, as well as during the Vietnam War, to seek the help.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar visited Hutchinson Saturday, in part, to help spread the word.

“The fact that it took this long to add (coverage of certain specific ailments) is something that has been frustrating to me and all of you,” Klobuchar said during a meeting with about two dozen people at the Disabled American Veterans Post 37. “But the point is, it’s finally gotten done. And it got done in time for March 29, which was the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.”

The Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT Act, was signed into law in August, giving veterans suffering from the effects of exposure to toxins such as ionizing radiation, chemicals used as herbicides and defoliants, contaminated water and burn pits, new benefits. It expanded the list of medical conditions, as well as the locations at which exposure to toxins were assumed to have occurred.

Benefits include health care for exposed veterans, even those without current chronic conditions. In addition, some spouses and children could receive health care. Additionally, disability compensation for recognized conditions and significant survivor benefits are provided for families of veterans whose deaths were directly caused by or were linked to the conditions.

“This is a big deal for your members,” Colby Mickolichek, commander of the Hutchinson VFW Post, said of the PACT Act following Klobuchar’s presentation. “This is a big deal for all younger veterans.”

But again, the key is seeking the help, a point made by Klobuchar, as well as Jim Lauer and Lisa Klenk, McLeod and Sibley county veterans service officers, respectively.

“So we’re going to talk today about Honoring our PACT Act,” Klobuchar said. “And the whole idea is that when we ask our young men and women to serve, and when they sign up, there isn’t a waiting line. And when they come home to our country, and they need a job or they need education, or they need health care, and specifically here today as we talk about a treatment for illnesses that they incurred because they served, there shouldn’t be a waiting line in our country.”

Klobuchar told the group Saturday that she met a Vietnam veteran who was serving mashed potatoes during a veterans event. She thanked the man for his service and for volunteering at the event, and he responded, “I just want to make sure that this group of vets gets treated better than I did when I got home … giving them steak and potatoes is just half of what we should be doing.”

“That stuck in my mind,” Klobuchar said. “And the fact that we didn’t let Agent Orange (exposure and its effects on Vietnam veterans) go as we looked at this major, major piece of legislation was really, really important to me.”

Service in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers who were stationed next to burn pits used to destroy a wide variety of waste, saw many veterans develop illnesses ranging from asthma to cancer. Yet the Department of Veterans Affairs denied 75% of the disability claims related to burn pit exposure from 2007 to 2020.

That’s changing under the PACT Act, Klobuchar said, adding that a recent discussion with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dennis McDonough, Minnesota native, reinforced her faith in the coverage the new legislation will give veterans.

“He’s been very focused on the claim numbers,” Klobuchar said. “And the reason they were denied (in the past) is that they claimed they were not service-related conditions. And now we’re seeing an incredibly high rate, because of the bill that passed, of people getting their benefits when these claims are submitted. But we still have to go back and handle the ones that were denied in the past.”

The PACT Act will expand health care eligibility to nearly 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to burn pits, and adds 23 toxic burn pit exposure conditions to the list of those eligible for VA services, Klobuchar said. It also expands the presumptions of exposure to Agent Orange and extends from five to 10 years the time in which veterans can seek care from the VA. Minnesota veterans account for more than 227,000 who were stationed near toxic chemicals, Klobuchar said.

Veterans Administration began processing claims in January and will backdate all claims received since Aug. 10, 2022, the date the PACT Act became law, Klobuchar said.

“It is comprehensive relief, it’s a big deal,” she added. “It’s not like one of those things where we say, ‘the check is in the mail.’ It actually has started already.”

Now it’s time to spread the news, Lauer said, a job left to veterans service officers like him and Klenk, as well as veterans organizations such as the VFW, American Legion and DAV.

“The key part for this, and for all of us … is to make sure the word gets out,” Lauer said. “There’s a lot of things in the news, in the media, a lot of mailings coming out, but the hard part for people to understand is, how does it apply to them.

“Keep in mind that this legislation is probably the widest-sweeping expansion of benefits since the GI Bill and the veteran home loan guarantee programs were started,” Lauer added. “We’re talking decades. So when we talk about the toxins, we’re going back to end of World War II atomic testing, exposure to ionizing radiation, and a lot of the events that happened in the years following World War II.”

Benefits started amidst piecemeal legislation with a list of just five recognized disabilities linked to Agent Orange exposure, Lauer said. That list has grown to 19 conditions tied just to herbicide exposure.

The PACT Act changes eligibility immensely, as it presumes exposure for any veteran whose service record shows them in an area of exposure — rather than putting it on the veteran to prove they were exposed to the toxins.

“It addresses veterans across the spectrum,” Lauer said. “And how you approach this can be very different from what your experiencesare.

“The challenge is you still have to go through the application processes, whether it’s health care enrollment, or pursuing disability claims,” Lauer said, adding the best steps for veterans is to speak to their local veterans service officer. “We do this on a daily basis, we know the evidence that needs to be submitted. And what we submit is called a fully developed claim where all the elements are sent to the VA upfront. And it will mean, usually, the fastest processing of that specific claim.”