WASHINGTON, D.C. [8.3.22] – Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) announced the Senate passed the most significant expansion of benefits and health services for veterans in more than 30 years. The historic Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act ensures millions of veterans exposed to noxious fumes emanating from burn pits will have access to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) care and benefits.
The bill’s passage comes after Senate Republicans voted to block the bipartisan deal last week, which many of them had previously voted for. The bill will now head to President Biden’s desk where it will be signed into law.
“I have heard heartbreaking stories from veterans in Minnesota and across the country who have fallen ill after serving our country and can’t access the health care they were promised,” said Senator Smith. “This bill is the largest expansion of benefits for service-connected health issues in 30 years and will mean quicker access to health care services for the millions of veterans who have been exposed to harmful toxins. I am thrilled to see this legislation on its way to President Biden’s desk, though it should have been there sooner. The health of American veterans should never be used as a political bargaining chip, and I thank the advocates and veterans who made their voices heard and ensured this bill made it across the finish line.”
Named after Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson who died in 2020 from toxic exposure as a result of his military service, the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act will expand health care for Post-9/11 combat veterans, create a framework for the establishment of future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure, expand VA’s list of service presumptions, and improve resources to support VA’s claims processing.
Military service can result in increased health risks for our veterans, and some injuries and illnesses like asthma, cancer, and others can take years to manifest. These realities can make it difficult for veterans to establish a direct connection between their service and disabilities resulting from military environmental exposures such as burn pits – a necessary step to ensure they receive the health care they earned. The PACT Act will extend VA benefits and enrollment deadlines so that veterans receive the health care they’ve earned.
Specifically, the PACT Act:
- Ensures veterans can receive high-quality health care screenings and services related to potential toxic exposures by expanding access to VA health care services for veterans exposed during their military service. For post-9/11 combat veterans, the bill extends the period of time they have to enroll in VA health care from five to ten years post-discharge. For those combat veterans who do not fall within that window, the bill also creates a one-year open enrollment period. These expansions mean that more veterans can enroll in VA health care without having to demonstrate a service connected disability.
- Codifies VA’s new process for evaluating and determining presumption of exposure and service connection for various chronic conditions when the evidence of a military environmental exposure and the associated health risks are strong in the aggregate but hard to prove on an individual basis. The legislation also requires the VA to seek independent evaluation of this process as well as external input on the conditions it will review using this framework. The new process is evidence-based, transparent, and allows VA to make faster policy decisions on crucial exposure issues. This new process has already fundamentally changed how VA makes decisions on environmental exposures and ensures more veterans have access to the care they need.
- The legislation removes the need for certain veterans and their survivors to prove service connection if they are diagnosed with one of 23 specific conditions. This greatly reduces the amount of paperwork and need for exams that veterans diagnosed with one of these conditions must complete before being granted access to health care and disability compensation, thereby speeding up their receipt of the benefits they have earned. This list includes 11 respiratory related conditions, along with several forms of cancer, including reproductive cancers, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, and brain cancers such as glioblastoma. Survivors of veterans who died due to one of these conditions may now also be eligible for benefits.
- To better understand the impact of toxic exposures, the PACT Act requires VA to conduct new studies of veterans who served in Southwest Asia during the Gulf War and analyses of post-9/11 veterans’ health trends. The new law also directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to convene a new interagency working group to develop a five-year strategic plan on toxic exposure research.
- Ensures veterans get the care they need by ensuring they are screened for toxic exposure and that VA personnel have the appropriate education and training. The PACT Act requires that veterans enrolled in VA health care be screened regularly for toxic exposure related concerns. This new law also requires VA to establish an outreach program for veterans regarding toxic exposure related benefits and supports, and to require additional toxic exposure related education and training for VA personnel.
- Delivers critical resources to VA to ensure it can deliver timely access to services and benefits for all veterans eligible – including those already enrolled. The PACT Act provides VA with mechanisms to enhance claims processing and to increase the workforce. The bill also invests in VA health care facilities by authorizing 31 major medical health clinics and research facilities in 19 states.