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TOXIC BURN PITUPDATE


Click on PDF for Annual GA MOAA Conference Agenda

(L-R) COL Mayo "Biff" Hadden US Army-SF (Ret) receives Georgia Military Veterans Hall of Fame Medal from Georgia Senator Ed Harbison (also a recipient)

VA Accelerates Toxic Exposure Claims, Urges Veterans to Apply Now

 

A senior airman burns uniform items.

An airman tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit in Balad, Iraq, March 10, 2008. (Senior Airman Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force photo)

1 Sep 2022

Military.com | By Patricia Kime

Veterans who qualify for disability compensation under the recently signed landmark toxic exposures act should begin filing claims, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said Wednesday.

Speaking at the American Legion's national convention in Milwaukee, McDonough announced that the department has retroactively designated all health conditions listed in the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act as presumed to be related to military service effective Aug. 10 -- the date the bill was signed.

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The law had called for phasing in conditions for many of the eligible veterans over the next several years. Instead, the VA will start processing claims for all beginning on Jan. 1, the "earliest possible date" the department can address them, McDonough said.

Read Next: Military Families Sue Over Red Hill Water Crisis Claiming Navy Negligence

"Veterans have waited too long for this care and these benefits already, and we're not going to make them wait any longer," McDonough said.

The law added 23 conditions to a list of presumptive illnesses considered related to burn pits, including certain types of cancer and respiratory illnesses, but they were to be phased in over the next three years, with those who are terminally ill, elderly or survivors having priority and eligible to file immediately.

The law also added high blood pressure to the list of illnesses presumed related to Agent Orange, a provision that could affect up to 500,000 Vietnam veterans. Most Vietnam veterans, except for those who are terminally ill; facing financial hardship or homelessness; or were 85 and older, weren't eligible to file a claim until October 2026, according to the law.

However, the PACT Act gave the VA the authority to move more quickly, and McDonough said the department wants every veteran to "get the care they need and their benefits they've earned."

"We're processing claims faster than we ever have before," he said.

More than 623,000 total claims were pending at the VA as of Aug. 27, with 154,000 categorized as "backlogged," or older than 125 days. That figure is down from more than 264,000 late last year.

To deal with the backlog and expected influx of new claims, the VA has hired thousands of new processors and automated its processing system to handle filings for commonly seen illnesses in veterans, such as hypertension, asthma, sleep apnea and prostate cancer.

McDonough said that, in many cases, the system reduces the processing time frame from months to days.

The PACT Act provides $278 billion over the next 10 years to expand VA health care and disability benefits for veterans exposed to a variety of toxins during military service, including burn pits, radiation, herbicides and chemicals.

More than 1 million veterans may be eligible under the legislation, and many have started claims already, according to McDonough. On Aug. 11 -- the day after President Joe Biden signed the new law -- the VA received the highest number of filings ever in a single day through the department's online disability claims filing system, McDonough said.

"No veteran is going to have to fight to get the quality care and benefits they've earned, no matter who they are or where they are," McDonough said.

To learn more or file a claim, veterans can visit the department's online page regarding PACT information or call 1-800-MyVA411 (800-698-2411).

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

President Signs Comprehensive Toxic Exposure Reform Legislation

By: Kipp Hanley

AUGUST 10, 2022

President Signs Comprehensive Toxic Exposure Reform Legislation

President Joe Biden applauds after handing a pen to Brielle Robinson, the daughter of Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, after signing the Honoring PACT Act at the White House in Washington, D.C, on Aug. 10. The president was surrounded by many of the bill's supporters during the signing ceremony, including MOAA President and CEO Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, USAF (Ret), here standing over the president's shoulder. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

A signing ceremony at the White House on Aug. 10 marked the end of a long legislative road to comprehensive toxic exposure reform, with the Sergeant First Class (SFC) Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 set to expand health care coverage to millions of veterans.

The bill’s passage came as part of a combined effort from MOAA and more than 60 other veterans service organizations, alongside veterans and their families, other advocates and advocacy groups, and a bipartisan group of legislators from both chambers.

The bill adds nearly two dozen conditions to a list of ailments presumed connected to toxic exposure by the VA; while the legislation includes a timetable for this change, President Joe Biden announced at the signing the VA will move to make these changes immediately. The bill also expands VA research into burn pit-related illnesses and improves VA’s screening process for those illnesses.

[RELATED: Veterans Can Start Filing Claims Now for PACT Act Benefits]

“It was a long-fought battle but in the end, this is a great outcome for our veterans,” MOAA President and CEO Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, USAF (Ret), said before attending the White House event. “As much as our nation is divided, both politically and socially, this was truly a bipartisan agreement at the end of the day.”

In the days leading up the Senate’s passage of the bill, veterans, family members and advocates for the legislation also participated in a “Fire Watch” near the steps of the Capitol. Several bill supporters used social media to help amplify their message to the general public, as well as members of Congress.

“For too long, many veterans who got sick fighting for our country had to fight for their care here at home,” VA Secretary Denis R. McDonough said Wednesday at the signing ceremony. McDonough also issued a press release announcing veterans and family members can visit VA.gov/PACT for coverage details.

Before signing the bill, Biden praised the courage of Sgt. 1st Class Robinson’s family in seeing this legislation to the finish line. Robinson died in 2020 from lung cancer as a result of burn pit exposure in Iraq.

“I am just in awe of your family’s courage,” Biden said to Robinson’s widow, Danielle. “Through the pain, you found purpose to demand that we do better as a nation. And today we are.”

[RELATED: Your Questions, Answered: The Honoring Our PACT Act]

Cory Titus, director of Veteran Benefits and Guard/Reserve Affairs for MOAA, thanked MOAA members, Congress, and other veterans groups for their support of the bill. MOAA members sent 14,000 messages, including emails, letters, and phone calls, to legislators in support of the legislation.

“Politics is a team sport, and few communities know how to work together better than veterans,” Titus said. “Legislation like the PACT Act is what happens when veterans lock arms and unite to fix a wrong that has been decades in the making. MOAA advocates went into overdrive in the days leading up to passage. Their emails and calls were vital.”

Titus also thanked a series of legislators from both parties, to include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.); Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairs Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and ranking members Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.); along with the “relentless dedication” of Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), along with Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.).

In addition, Titus recognized the efforts of Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Wounded Warrior Project, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, Burn Pits 360, Reserve Organization of America, TAPS, members of the TEAM (Toxic Exposures in the American Military) Coalition, and activists Jon Stewart and John Feal.

[RELATED: MOAA Urges Lawmakers to Pass Key Veterans Health Care Legislation]

Atkins said he is happy McDonough is already encouraging veterans to apply for benefits. The list of veterans covered by the bill includes post 9/11 veterans and those Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll. 

“[The VA Secretary] recognizes that every hour we delay, we lose another veteran,” Atkins said. “And that, quite frankly, is unacceptable.”

Moran echoed that sentiment in a news release the day of the signing ceremony.

“From Vietnam veterans suffering from Agent Orange to the 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans exposed to burn pits during their deployments, our nation’s veterans and their families will no longer have to fear being turned away from the VA for illnesses connected to toxic exposure,” Moran said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kipp Hanley

Kipp Hanley

Hanley is MOAA's staff writer. He has spent the last 26 years working in  journalism and public relations. 

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Arlington Cemetery Update: Bill Would Fix Unjust Changes, But It Needs Support

By: Mark Belinsky

MAY 25, 2022

Arlington Cemetery Update: Bill Would Fix Unjust Changes, But It Needs Support

A view from above of Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery)

A long-term legislative solution will preserve burial with full military honors for countless elderly and women veterans who could lose that earned benefit – but only if MOAA members and others encourage their lawmakers to act.

 

[TAKE ACTION: Ask Your Lawmakers to Co-Sponsor the Expanding America’s National Cemetery Act]

 

The Expanding America’s National Cemetery Act of 2022 has yet to be introduced in either chamber.  A draft version of the law doesn’t specifically address the planned reduction of eligibility at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), but it takes significant steps toward a long-term solution. The bill would:

  • Authorize the transformation of a VA-run national cemetery “to continue provision of full military honors” prior to Arlington reaching capacity. This would remove the space restrictions at Arlington which led to the ill-conceived eligibility changes now working their way through the federal rulemaking process.
     
  • Ensure all eligibility criteria used for full military honors at the proposed cemetery are the same as those in effect for ANC as of March 31, 2022. This would make Congress’ intent clear regarding eligibility changes beyond that date, increasing the likelihood of the current process staying in place.
     
  • Require a joint DoD/VA report covering both cemetery expansion and any new eligibility criteria, paying special attention to women veterans and to those whose military careers did not include service in combat. This further clarifies Congress’ intent to better account for these groups in the eligibility process.

 

[RELATED: Public Memorial Day Events Return to VA National Cemeteries]

 

Original co-sponsors of this legislation will be key to its success, either as a standalone bill or included in the FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). That’s why MOAA is asking its members to reach out now, even before the bill is introduced, to rally support behind this critical measure at this critical time.

 

Why It Matters

Despite its Southern Expansion, and despite eligibility restrictions designed to extend the life of the cemetery, ANC eventually will run out of room. Changing the rules is a cost-cutting measure – one that comes on the backs of military retirees and others whose final plans included burial at a national cemetery. It’s also shortsighted – a long-term solution involving the transformation of an existing VA national cemetery is cost-sensitive and establishes efficiencies by relying on existing VA expertise.

 

And it’s discriminatory: As the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) put it in a February letter to congressional leadership, “Suddenly, most living veterans eligible for burial at ANC, many of whom served in critical operations at sea or in the air and all but a few women – who were barred by law from service in combat occupations and units until recently – will be denied internment at ANC despite their dedication, gallant, and often dangerous service to their Country.”

 

[READ THE SWAN LETTER]

 

What’s Next

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees will begin marking up the NDAA in the coming weeks. The House Armed Services Committee included report language in last year’s NDAA for a joint DoD and VA report on the ANC issue, with unanimous consent, only to have it removed by the Senate. Outreach to your elected officials, especially your two senators, will help improve the chances for the Expanding America’s National Cemetery act to be included in the FY 2023 NDAA.

 

If you’ve already sent a message, consider a follow-up phone call. Use MOAA’s Capital Hotline – 866-272-MOAA (6622), a toll-free line to the U.S. Capitol switchboard – to connect with your legislators' offices.

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