Thousands of Utah veterans now eligible for VA health care, benefits

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the one-year anniversary of passage of the PACT Act, the most significant expansion of benefits and services for toxic exposed veterans and survivors in over 30 years, at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.

SALT LAKE CITY — All veterans exposed to toxins and other hazards while serving in the military are now eligible to enroll directly in Veterans Administration health care, starting Wednesday, in what may be the largest health care and benefits expansion in the history of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The expansion covers millions of veterans who were exposed to toxins and other hazards while serving in the military, and includes those who served in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other combat zone after Sep. 11, 2001. They also must have participated in an activity that exposes them to air pollutants, chemicals, radiation or other toxins.

“We’re really excited to be able to offer this care today,” said Matthew Critchfield, chief of health administrative services at the Salt Lake City VA Health Care System. The expansion of care, as part of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, signed in August 2022, eliminated the phased approach to eligibility that would have originally been completed by 2032.

For many health conditions, the VA requires a veteran to prove military service caused a condition. For some, called presumptive conditions, the VA will automatically attribute the diagnosis to the area and time frame in which the veteran served.

Under the PACT act, over 20 presumptive conditions were established for burn pit, Agent Orange and other exposure sites, as well as additional locations of service. But now, service members don’t need to exhibit any symptoms or conditions to enroll for VA health care. They are eligible simply for serving during specific times. Those who never deployed but were exposed to toxins or hazards while training or on active duty in the United States are also eligible.

Over 250,000 veterans have enrolled in the first phase of the expansion, before the door was opened Wednesday for all eligible veterans to enroll. Pushing the process eight years earlier than expected is “a huge deal,” Critchfield said. He encouraged any veteran who thinks he or she may be eligible in this expansion to look into enrollment.

President Joe Biden visited the Salt Lake City VA in August to commemorate the anniversary of one year since signing the PACT Act. He said, “We have many obligations as a nation, but we only have one truly sacred obligation, and that’s to equip those we send into harm’s way and care for them and their families when they come home and when they don’t.”

Biden spoke of his son, Beau, who served in Iraq and lived close to an open-air garbage dump, called a burn pit, which released toxic pollution. Beau Biden III, 46, the former attorney general of Delaware, died of a brain tumor in May 2015, though it remains unclear whether his proximity to those pits contributed to his illness.

According to the president, nearly $30 million is to be invested in new outpatient clinics in Salt Lake City under the act to provide care for a new wave of eligible veterans.

Burn pits and the PACT Act

Pamela Lein, a professor of neurotoxicology at University of California, Davis, wrote that “hundreds of open-air garbage dumps were spread across Afghanistan and Iraq, often close to encampments where American soldiers lived, worked, ate and slept.” Items burned, she wrote in her book on the subject, included plastics, tires, batteries, hazardous chemicals and munitions.

The U.S. Department of Defense has estimated almost 3.5 million soldiers could have been exposed to toxic smoke at levels enough to cause “significant adverse health effects,” and while soldiers had short-term exposure, Iraqi citizens downwind were chronically exposed to these toxic agents for a decade.

The illnesses produced by exposure to these toxins were slow to surface in veterans, who had to prove under-researched medical conditions were tied to their military service and struggled to get their conditions approved by the VA. From June 2007 to July 2020, congressional testimony from a representative of the Veterans Benefits Administration revealed nearly 78% of claimed conditions related to burn-pit exposure were denied, though that number does not provide information on the quality of the claims.

During that time, a class action lawsuit was winding through court, alleging the contractor who built and ran the burn pits — Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton at the time — did so negligently. In 2019, the lawsuit reached the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case, upholding the District Court of Delaware’s judgement that anyone allegedly harmed by the burn pits needed to seek a remedy “through the military and the legislative process, not through the judiciary.”

It took the political pressure from an unlikely source — comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart — along with a team of lobbyists to make any sort of progress with legislation, starting in 2020.

In August 2021, the VA instituted a new rule for processing disability claims for asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis for veterans who served in southwest Asia. Then, in April 2022, the VA defined nine types of rare respiratory cancers connected to burn-pit exposure. Lein says it was a step in the right direction, but many other cancers and medical conditions did not make the list.

The PACT Act added many types of cancers and illnesses, depending on the service location and type of exposure.

The PACT Act in Utah

The Veterans Benefit Administration has awarded $33.6 million in retroactive benefits from the time the act was signed until present, with a claim grant rate of 77.2%. Nationally, the organization surpassed the completion of 1 million claims on Friday, the most productive year in its history.

Critchfield said the Salt Lake City VA Health Care System, with a main campus and clinics across Utah, and some in Idaho and Nevada, is eager to start enrolling new veterans, and will be prioritizing the claims of veterans with cancer to make sure they get timely access to care and benefits.

Surviving family members of a veteran may also be eligible for benefits under the new expansion.

Due to an increase in PACT Act scams targeting veterans, Critchfield says those looking to enroll for health care or file disability claims should call an enrollment adviser at 801-584-2585, or use the official VA website. Veterans can also contact a local service organization like the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars or the Utah State Division of Veterans Affairs.