Thousands of veterans flood VA with claims for toxic exposure benefits, health care

WASHINGTON – The US Department of Veterans Affairs is processing claims at the fastest pace in its history in hopes that hundreds of thousands of veterans will be able to access health care and benefits under the landmark Toxic Exposure Act passed by Congress earlier this year. apply for.

A day after President Joe Biden signed the bill into law in August, veterans set an all-time record for benefits claims filed online and more than 136,000 have applied for benefits under the toxic exposure law as of mid-November . The VA expects the number of veterans and surviving family members to reach more than 700,000 in the coming months.

To address the rise in claims, the VA is hiring more staff to provide health care and process applications, but officials expect backlogs to increase in the short term.

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Joshua Jacobs, who has been performing the delegating duties of the VA under secretary for benefits, said in mid-November that the VA “is in a better position to deal with this increased workload” than in 2013 when the agency was widely reported to be was reprimanded for allowing the backlog to exceed 600,000.

“For members who followed the claims backlog for a long time, you might ask, ‘Are we going to see the same story today?’ he told members of the US Senate at a hearing. “I’m pleased to say that today we are better positioned to deal with this increased workload.”

Jacobs said the VA is moving toward a paperless system and hiring thousands of people will help it avoid a significant backlog in the coming months as hundreds of thousands of veterans apply for health care and benefits that are difficult to access. The risks are part of the law, known as the PACT Act.

“As we continue to encourage more veterans and survivors to apply for their PACT Act benefits, we expect inventory and backlogs to increase in the short term,” he said at an oversight hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Huh.”

Veterans and supporters of the PACT Act demonstrate outside the US Capitol building on August 2, 2022 in Washington, DC (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Jacobs noted that the VA reduced its total backlog this month to its lowest in years, under 150,000 claims. He also said the VA is encouraging veterans and eligible surviving family members of deceased veterans who are now eligible to apply on the VA’s website or with an accredited representative at a veteran service organization no later than August 10, 2023. Toxic exposure is covered under the law. earliest possible effective date.

The VA has set up a website at va.gov/pact as well as a phone number, 800-698-2411, for veterans to call for more information or to file a claim.

‘Hiccups are about to happen’

Committee chairman Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said everyone expects “hiccups to come” in implementing the sweeping legislation that is the largest expansion of health care and benefits in VA history.

“Veterans who previously filed claims will now hear about many more of their siblings joining them in line,” Tester said. “But the VA must make sure that each of them gets the right decision as quickly as possible.”

As more new faces appear in hospital waiting rooms, Tester said, “the VA must ensure they receive the quality care they deserve.” He also said that while the panel works on some new legislation during the next Congress, the committee’s primary focus will be on oversight of the VA.

Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the committee’s top Republican, said his main priority for the panel is “proper, adequate implementation of legislation” that Congress has passed, including the PACT Act.

Sheriff Elnahal, the under secretary for health, said the VA is “working to reach every veteran who may qualify for the new benefits and care to make sure they meet what the toxic exposure law does.” and how to apply for benefits”.

Elnahal said department leaders are looking to increase the staffing to handle the influx of veterans and “initiate new research on toxic exposure.”

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, speaks at a press conference on legislation to provide health care for veterans exposed to burn pits, June 7, 2022. (Jennifer Shutt / States Newsroom)

The department is reaching out to the more than 300,000 veterans who have entered information in the Burn Pits Registry and plans to hold more than 80 events the week of December 10 to inform veterans about the new law.

They have introduced a standard toxic exposure screening for veterans going to primary care clinics and “in just one week, this clinical screening has reached 166,000 veterans with more than 37% reporting exposures,” Elnahal said. told the panel.

The VA, Elnahal said, is working on a plan to boost hiring in rural areas, though he told the committee that would happen if Congress implements a portion of the president’s budget request that removes the $400,000 cap on salaries. It could be simple.

“It is becoming more difficult – on the physician, dentist and podiatrist side – to recruit the right people, especially in rural areas, as wages rise and the health care labor market becomes more difficult,” he said. . “And we’ll be able to pay more innovatively to encourage the right behavior among these physicians.”

needs more outreach

America’s Iraq and Afghanistan veterans believe the implementation is off to a good start so far.

But the organization, which represents more than 425,000 members, says both the VA and the US Department of Defense need to do much more to reach all veterans who are eligible.

“IAVA played a major role, along with our VSO partners, in getting this landmark legislation passed into law, so we are vested in its success,” Tom Porter, IAVA’s executive vice president for government relations, said in a written statement.

“We are encouraged by the energy put into the early roll-out of the new legislation by VA Secretary McDonough and his team, as well as by the commitment to oversight by the House and Senate veterans committees,” he said. “All parties, including the VSO, should make every effort to inform veterans about their new benefits.”

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