Deadline looms for toxin-exposed veterans to register for backdated benefits
Image via AP.

Close to 2/3 of veterans nationwide remain unaware they’re eligible for new benefits.

One week from today will mark a year since President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act, the largest expansion of benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances in more than 30 years.

To date, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has received more 770,000 PACT Act claims, of which 78% were approved.

That includes some 65,000 Florida veterans who signed up for benefits since the legislation went into effect last year.

There is no formal date by which veterans must apply for the new benefits. However, the coming anniversary of the PACT Act’s ratification, Aug. 9, is the last day veterans have to apply for those benefits to be retroactive to when the measure was signed.

“We urge every veteran to file a claim,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said at a recent press conference.

The VA has received the highest inventory of claims in its history since the PACT Act went into effect, McDonough said. But close to two-thirds of veterans are still unaware they’re eligible for the new benefits, according to a July AARP report.

PACT ACT benefits include an automatic “service connection” for illnesses traceable to veterans’ exposure to toxic burn pit smoke in Afghanistan and Iraq and other substances, including cancer-causing Agent Orange, during the Cold War and Vietnam.

Among other things, the $280 billion PACT Act:

— Expands and extends eligibility for VA health care for veterans with toxic exposures to veterans of the Vietnam war, Gulf War and post-9/11 eras.

— Adds more than 20 presumptive conditions for burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic exposures.

— Adds more presumptive-exposure locations for Agent Orange radiation, including high blood pressure and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS).

— Requires the VA to provide a toxic exposure screening to every veteran enrolled in VA health care.

— Funds research, staff education and treatment related to toxic exposures.

Federal lawmakers passed the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act Aug. 2 after years of gridlock in Washington.

Comedian Jon Stewart, who was pivotal in bringing attention to the issue, received recognition from Biden for his years of advocacy during the bill’s signing Aug. 10.

Only Republicans opposed the measure, including 11 Senators and 88 Representatives.

Five Florida lawmakers voted “no”: U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, Neal Dunn, Scott Franklin, Greg Steube and Daniel Webster.

All won re-election less than four months later.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.

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