More than 1 million vets have received new toxic exposure benefits

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Veterans Affairs officials have now approved more than 1 million claims through the sweeping toxic exposure legislation signed into law 22 months ago, a milestone White House officials praised as evidence they are “doing better” for veterans seeking help with their service injuries.

President Joe Biden will formally announce that the department has reached the 1 million benchmark during an event in New Hampshire later today. The disability claims are related to benefits expanded in the 2022 PACT Act, which includes injuries from military toxins like chemical defoliants and burn pit smoke.

In a press call Monday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough praised the president for his aggressive approach to the law’s implementation, saying it has allowed his department to reach large numbers of beneficiaries faster than expected.

“He pushed us to implement that new law quickly and to its fullest extent, including expanding VA care to new groups of vets years earlier than envisioned [in the statute],” he said. “The PACT Act is making tangible life-changing differences for the vets and survivors we serve.”

VA has paid out more than $5.7 billion in earned PACT Act-related benefits to nearly 890,000 veterans and survivors through the claims, officials said. The department has also conducted more than 5.4 million toxic exposure screenings over the last two years, designed to help alert patients and physicians to possible lingering service issues.

Department officials have said the approval rate for PACT Act claims is currently about 75%.

However, advocates in recent months have lamented that individuals filing claims related to constrictive bronchiolitis or hypertension continue to struggle to navigate the system and receive compensation for those issues. VA leaders have promised they are looking into the issue.

Department officials have made public awareness of the new PACT Act benefits a focus of their outreach efforts in recent years. Despite the new milestone, they said they expect to continue that work, to ensure that all eligible veterans are aware of the potential help and how to apply for it.

As many as one in five veterans living in America today could be eligible for disability or health care benefits because of the legislation, according to past estimates from the department.

Biden officials have said that veterans issues — particularly helping individuals suffering illnesses related to burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan — will be a key theme of his presidential re-election campaign.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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