Bill improves access to VA health coverage for toxic-exposed veterans, includes over $11 million for Buffalo VA Hospital
Congressman Brian Higgins announced the final passage of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act (S. 3373). The bill is a comprehensive measure that seeks to address the challenges that toxic-exposed veterans face in accessing critical health care services through the Department of Veteran Affairs.
The PACT Act includes over $11.1 million for the Buffalo VA hospital to lease a new research facility.
“Military veterans served our country with the promise that they would be cared for once they returned home. Overseas, they experienced unthinkable circumstances that had a significant impact on their long-term health,” Higgins said. “This legislation honors the commitment veterans made to our country and ensures access to earned benefits so they can properly address their service-related health challenges, with a specific commitment to Western New York veterans for additional funding for the Buffalo VA Hospital.”
"This is great news and is so necessary for our veterans," said Felice E. Krycia, former member of the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam Era and current senior service officer at Erie County Veterans Service Agency. "There isn't a day that goes by that we don't have veterans whose health has been negatively impacted by their time in service and often can't get treated for these issues by the VA."
"I served about 18 months active duty in Afghanistan and saw the burn pits almost every day," said Dan Ratka, retired U.S. Army National Guard and service officer at Erie County. "The fires were huge; they looked like the flames from a rocket being launched, and the smoke went everywhere. We burned everything, batteries, sewage – you name it; there were no garbage dumps there. Of course, there were toxins, chemicals and things released in the air."
The funds for the Buffalo VA hospital will allow the facility to lease a new space dedicated to research. Moving the research facility into a new location will allow the VA to use the current research space at its Bailey Avenue location for expanded surgical and ICU capabilities. The new research facility, while not yet chosen, is expected to be more conducive to state-of-the-art research than the current space.
Higgins’ team said, “Every day, more and more veterans are speaking out about exposure to environmental hazards and other toxic substances during their military service. These toxic exposures include contaminated water at military bases, airborne hazards from burn pits, radiation from atomic testing and clean-ups, and Agent Orange exposure beyond Vietnam.”
"It's not just the burn pits, it's the airborne toxins that are carried by the wind," said Nathan Doherty, former active U.S. Navy, current USN reservist, and also an employee of the Erie County Veterans Service Office, responsible for community outreach. "I was in Bahrain and other ports and went through at least two sandstorms. There’s no telling what toxins are in the air, and the sand can get stuck in your lungs.”
This comprehensive bill expands access to VA health care eligibility to post-9/11 combat veterans, which includes more than 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans. It also expands VA health benefits to veterans for any illness if they participated in a toxic exposure risk activity while on active duty or training, served on active duty from Aug. 2, 1990, to Sept. 11, 2001, or were deployed on support operations in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The measure will expand the period of health care eligibility for combat veterans discharged or released from service after Sept. 11, 2001, from five years to 10 years following discharge. Veterans who discharged from the military between Sept. 11, 2001, and Oct. 1, 2013, and haven’t enrolled will be eligible for open enrollment for one year starting Oct. 1, 2022.
The bill establishes a presumption of service connection for more than 20 respiratory illnesses and cancers for veterans exposed to burn pits or other airborne hazards. This includes asthma diagnosed after service, lymphoma, brain cancer, melanoma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema. Exposure presumptions will be expanded specifically for veterans who served in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, or the UAE beginning Aug. 2, 1990, as well as Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Uzbekistan and Yemen beginning Sept. 11, 2001. Additionally, veterans exposed to toxic substances during the Vietnam War will be eligible for benefits immediately if they are terminally ill, experiencing homelessness or extreme financial hardship, have certain respiratory illnesses or cancers, or are older than 85.
Also included are key provisions to address Agent Orange and radiation exposures. The VA will be required expand health coverage to veterans exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Thailand, Loas and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Additionally, the bill adds hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy to the list of presumptions for Agent Orange exposure. Presumptions of exposure will also be established who participated in nuclear clean-up efforts in Palomares, Spain, Thule, Greenland and Enewetak Atoll.
The bill provides $500 million in fiscal year 2022 for a Cost of War Toxic Exposures Fund, which covers the cost of health care, research and benefits associated with service-connected exposure to environmental hazards. This funding can also be used by the VA to improve IT systems to support the anticipated increase in claims from newly eligible veterans.
The bill provides $1.88 billion for 31 new leases on major medical facilities, including $11,106,000 for the Buffalo VA Hospital Medical Research Facility. This includes funding for enhanced-use leases, which allow the VA to lease property to the public and private sector for supportive housing for veterans who are experiencing or at risk for homelessness. The measure also provides support for the VA health care workforce by increasing basic pay rates, offering retention and recruitment bonuses, student loan repayment assistance, as well as incentives for obtaining high-demand skills.
This legislation is supported by The American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Now approved in the House and Senate, the bill is expected to be signed into law by President Joe Biden.
"We thank Congressman Higgins for taking this much-needed action, and it is our hope that, once signed by the president, the Department of Veterans Affairs implements the added benefits quickly," Krycia said.