STARS AND STRIPES • August 31, 2022
VA Secretary Denis McDonough speaks at the American Legion Convention in Milwaukee, Wis., on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. (Screenshot from video)
WASHINGTON — The Veterans Affairs Department has declared all 23 health conditions outlined in the recently enacted PACT Act “presumptive” from the date the bill was signed, reducing the burden on veterans or their survivors to prove that certain diseases were caused by service-related exposure to toxins and burn pits.
The VA had planned to phase in the system, under which specific health conditions likely resulting from exposure to toxins are recognized as service-related, over the next few years. Those conditions include brain cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, kidney cancer, lymphoma and melanoma, among others. President Joe Biden signed the legislation Aug. 10.
"Veterans have waited too long for this care and these benefits already and we're not going to make them wait any longer," VA Secretary Denis McDonough told the American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee on Wednesday. “So instead of phasing in the conditions over the coming years, we're making all conditions outlined in the PACT Act presumptive August 10."
The law will provide an easier path to health care and benefits for veterans who served near open-air burn pits, which were widely used by the military throughout the 1990s and the post-9/11 wars to dispose of garbage, jet fuel and other materials. Veterans diagnosed with cancer, respiratory issues and lung disease at early ages have blamed exposure on the toxic fumes from these pits, but the VA contended for years that there wasn't sufficient evidence to support their claims.
The new law will also expand the list of presumptive diseases related to Agent Orange to include exposure in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll. It also strengthens federal research on toxic exposure, and boosts the VA's resources and training to help cope with new claims.
McDonough also said the VA will begin processing PACT Act claims on Jan. 1, describing it as the earliest possible date. He also said that implementing and executing "one of the biggest expansions of VA benefits in history" won't be easy.
"We will really need your help communicating because we want every veteran, every single veteran to get the care they need and the benefits they deserve, the benefits they have earned, and we will not rest until they do," McDonough said.
The bill was named after Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder and lung cancer after serving with the Army National Guard in Kosovo and Iraq, where he experienced prolonged exposure to burn pits. He died in 2020.
During the speech, McDonough also said the VA was making progress in combating veteran homelessness.
"Three quarters through the year now, we've permanently housed 22,500 homeless vets on track to meet, if not exceed, that goal," McDonough said.
The VA secretary also said the agency will work to increase the housing supply, make housing more affordable, and provide all-around services such as mental health care and substance abuse disorder care.
"No veteran should be homeless in the country they fought to defend, not one, and we will deliver for them together," McDonough said.
The agency said in June that 180 housing units will be added to the campus of the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, along with 535 individual veteran housing units through project-based vouchers.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated in January 2020 that 37,252 veterans experienced homelessness in a single night. An estimated 10% of those veterans lived in Los Angeles.
Sara Samora is a Marine Corps veteran and the veterans reporter for Stars and Stripes. A native Texan, she previously worked at the Houston Business Journal and the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. She also serves on the boards of Military Veterans in Journalism and the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals.