The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will give priority to veterans with cancer when it begins processing benefits claims under the landmark toxic exposure law signed this summer, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced Monday.
“I’m proud to announce for the first time today, on National Cancer Awareness Day, that we’re expediting benefits delivery for veterans with cancer conditions covered by law,” McDonough said during an appearance at the National Press Club.
On Jan. 1, the VA will start processing claims for benefits filed under the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act.
The law, signed by President Biden in early August, expands benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxins during service and are suffering illnesses as a result.
The legislation designates 23 diseases, half of them types of cancers, presumed to be linked to burn pits used in the post-9/11 era and other pollutants and environmental hazards from earlier wars such as the Vietnam War-era Agent Orange.
The law is meant to give veterans with those illnesses an easier way to claim health care and disability benefits through the VA.
McDonough’s announcement to prioritize claims from veterans with cancer stems from Biden’s “cancer moonshot” initiative, relaunched in February. The effort aims to cut the cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years and improve the lives of caregivers and cancer survivors.
The program, initially launched while Biden was vice president, is personal to the commander in chief, as his son Beau Biden died of glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer, in 2015 at the age of 46.
The president has spoken often about how he suspects his son’s glioblastoma stemmed from his time in the Delaware National Guard, when he was exposed to burn pits while serving in Iraq and Kosovo.
The VA is also undertaking several other initiatives ahead of its claims processing start date for the PACT Act.
Beginning Tuesday, veterans making their first visit to VA health care facilities for any reason will undergo a new toxic exposure screening. The effort, mandated under the PACT Act, is meant to check individuals for any signs of illness and inform them of new benefits they may qualify for, with officials to conduct the screening for veterans once every five years.
McDonough called the screening “an important step toward making sure that all toxic exposed vets get the care and benefits they deserve, even if they don’t know today that they were exposed.”
The VA is also in the midst of major efforts to recruit additional health and benefits personnel and keep current employees, no easy feat at a time of nationwide nursing and medical staff shortages.
To that end, the department was given more than four months from the time the PACT Act was signed to when it will start processing benefits claims, time to hire more personnel to tackle and try to stay ahead of any backlogs and long wait times for benefits.
Even so, veterans have filed nearly 137,000 claims under the PACT Act since August, McDonough said.
That means the VA has received 24,000 additional claims in less than two weeks, up from the 113,000 filed as of Oct. 27.
McDonough acknowledged that the VA “will be on the clock, as it were, for scoring” backlogs — a persistent problem the department has struggled with, especially in rural America.
To keep such issues at bay, the VA set a goal earlier this year to hire 2,000 new claims processors.
“We have hired almost all of those 2,000,” McDonough said but noted that training is still needed for many of those individuals. That takes a full year “before they’re performing at highest levels,” he said.
He added that more personnel will be needed.
“We need at least that many more, if not more than that, to implement the PACT Act,” he said.
McDonough also vowed the department won’t rest until “every veteran gets the care they need and the benefits they deserve.”
Source: The Hill