PACT law will help provide medical care for veterans, but VA must process disability claims quickly

Aug. 20 – ALBANY – When a bill providing relief to veterans exposed to toxic burns in Afghanistan and Iraq stalled for a vote in the US Senate, Jim Lorraine wasn’t too worried.

The legislation had been passed with huge bipartisan support in June, but had to be revoted to fix the bills’ wording, and 25 Republican lawmakers reversed their previous votes in July.

After the passage of the PACT Act the following week, President Biden signed legislation expanding health care benefits for veteran soldiers exposed to burning fireplaces on August 10.

“It’s not that it didn’t pass (initially), it didn’t go from a deliberation to a vote,” said Lorraine, president and CEO of America’s Warrior Partnership. , an organization that works with military and local officials on veterans’ issues, including health care and suicide prevention. “It’s a procedural vote. I understand that. The great thing about our republic is that debate is a good thing. They had a little more debate. You can tell from the debate that ‘they supported him.’

Now it’s about moving from funding to ensuring veterans can get the help they need, he said. The PACT Act covers a list of identified medical conditions for those who served in both theaters of war, whereas previously the burden of proof that wartime exposure to toxic burning chemicals caused illness was up to the veteran.

“No. 1, the biggest problem is that there is going to be a deluge of claims,” ​​said Lorraine, a retired US Air Force lieutenant colonel who was exposed to burns in places other than those covered by the legislation. “What we do know is that the DVA (Department of Veterans Affairs) was inundated before the pandemic hit. Our concern from the VA story is that I don’t think they had the ability to make old claims and make these new claims at the same time.

“We are 100% (for) opening up the VA to medical care for people who have been exposed to toxic substances. Get them treated right away.”

It’s the easiest part of the equation, but it’s the disability cases that tend to take time, the veteran officer said.

“There were a lot of veterans who had toxic exposure who had symptoms of toxic exposure and didn’t have access to health care. Now they have that, and that’s great. At the same time, the VA needs to understand how they’re going to process disability benefit claims.”

Time is something a lot of veterans don’t have much of.

Another need is to ensure that military personnel are not made ill by hotspots in the future, said Lorraine, who at the time of her retirement was an assistant surgeon with US Special Forces Command and investigated on diseases related to toxic substances. exposure. Congressional committees essentially work in silos, so a committee involved in veterans affairs will look into the impact of toxic exposure, but it’s up to the Department of Defense to seek a solution.

“I think we have to see how to prevent this from happening again,” Lorraine said. “It’s one thing for us to keep plugging the hole in the boat, but at some point we have to figure out where we hit the rock that’s making the hole in the boat. That’s the $258 billion question. , what are we doing to prevent it?

Lorraine encouraged all veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances, even those being treated for related illnesses, to register at https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/burnpits/. The register also covers exposure to sand, dust and fine particles; general air pollution common in some countries; and fuel, aircraft exhaust and smoke from oil well fires.

Lorraine, who was exposed to oil well smoke in Kuwait and burning hotspots in other countries and developed squamous cell cancer and respiratory problems, said there may be compensation available down the line for veterans disabled due to chemical exposure. At the very least, veterans should make sure they get the best treatment available.