It is not a secret that military service members are sometimes exposed to toxic substances. Legislation addressing this exposure allowing for access to healthcare in related illnesses to this exposure passed in the Senate in an 84-14 vote. The bill, titled Sergeant First Class Heath Robison Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins Act of 2022 or Honoring our PACT Act of 2022, expands health care eligibility. The bill passed in the House on 03/03/2022 with a 256-174 vote and then passed in the Senate on 06/16/2022. It is now awaiting the signature of President Joe Biden.
The additional diseases associated with exposures to certain agents for which there is a presumption of service connection for veterans who served in certain locations included monoclonal gammopathy and hypertension. The previous diseases thought to be associated with exposure to burn pits and associated toxins included asthma, many types of cancer including but not limited to melanoma, respiratory and head, and neck cancers, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis, emphysema, granulomatous disease, interstitial lung disease, pleuritis, pulmonary fibrosis, sarcoidosis, chronic sinusitis, chronic rhinitis, glioblastoma and any disease thought to be in connection to a substance, chemical or airborne hazard. These illnesses are thought to be related to exposure and allow veterans to have health care and disability benefits for these illnesses through the VA without having to prove the connection of the illness to their service.
The geographic areas served are expanded to areas including Spain, Thule, Greenland, near Palomares and the Enewetak Atoll for radiation-exposed veterans for dates from 1966 to 1980 depending on the location served. The areas for exposure to herbicide agents were expanded from Vietnam to include Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Guam, or on the Johnson Atoll from 1962 to 1976 depending on location.
Within one year from the date of enactment of the Act, the Secretary of Veterans of Affairs is called to establish a Toxic Exposure Research Working Group in cooperation with the Department of Veterans Affairs, The Department of Defense, The Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency and other entities of the federal government involved in the research of the impact of toxic exposures experience during active military service including but not limited naval, air and space services.
In no later than 270 dates from the date that the Act passes to analyze the total and respiratory disease mortality in veterans who served on or after August 2, 1990, serving on active duty in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and the United Arab Emirates and for those who served on or after September 11, 2001, in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria or Yemen. The study will collect qualitative characteristics in addition to health concerns.
The bill also includes a required study on the jet fuels used in the armed forces and possible health risks it causes with additional safeguards that will be put into place to lower health risks.
Why the changes? Many advocacy groups have lobbied for the addition of hypertension to covered causes after the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released information that the herbicides used in Vietnam and Southeast Asia led to hypertension or high blood pressure.
With the changes and expansion of the bill, about half a million Vietnam War veterans may be eligible for disability coverage.
The bill also includes a section on illnesses related to the water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Those covered in this section include individuals who lived on, resided in, or were exposed to the water for no less than 30 days from August 1, 1953, to December 31, 1987. Individuals who suffered illnesses after exposure to the water may file claims to that effect.
The expansion of coverage to affected veterans will slowly be phased-in so that the Veterans Affairs hospitals are not overwhelmed by an increase in patients. No announcement from the VA has been made in regards to increasing facilities or providers to care for a potentially large increase in the population they serve.
If you are currently evaluated by the VA Health system and one of the above includes you or someone you know, the VA has been instructed to review any previous submissions or denials in regards to the above. Contact your local VA if further assistance is needed.