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Senior Airman Frances Gavalis, a 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron equipment manager, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit in Balad, Iraq, in 2008. The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, will expand toxic screening to all veterans enrolled in its health care system in the United States under a new law that expands eligibility for care and benefits for those exposed to burn pits and other toxins.

Senior Airman Frances Gavalis, a 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron equipment manager, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit in Balad, Iraq, in 2008. The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, will expand toxic screening to all veterans enrolled in its health care system in the United States under a new law that expands eligibility for care and benefits for those exposed to burn pits and other toxins. (Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday will expand toxic screening to all veterans enrolled in its health care system in the United States under a new law that expands eligibility for care and benefits for those exposed to burn pits and other toxins, agency officials announced Monday.

“These screenings are an important step toward making sure that all toxic-exposed veterans get the care and benefits they deserve," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a prepared statement. “At the end of the day, these screenings will improve health outcomes for veterans — and there’s nothing more important than that.”

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, or PACT Act, seeks to provide an easier path to health care and benefits for veterans who served near open-air burn pits, which were used throughout the 1990s and the post-9/11 wars to burn garbage, jet fuel and other materials.

The new law also required the VA to incorporate a screening to help determine potential toxic exposures during their active-duty service as part of a health care screening for veterans enrolled in the agency’s health care system.

When veterans visit their primary care provider, whether it’s for a yearly wellness check-up or a cold, they will be asked questions about potential exposure to burn pits or other hazards commonly associated with military environmental exposure.

In September, the VA tested the toxic exposure screening at 12 VA medical centers. The VA then made modifications to the screening after receiving feedback from its health care workers, general counsel, leaders and congressional staffers. The screening also has been presented to leaders of its Healthcare Operations Center, which is responsible for collecting, analyzing, planning and disseminating information to its stakeholders.

VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said a multi-disciplinary team of clinicians, informatics, IT experts, union representatives, representatives from VA’s Health Outcomes Military Exposures Office, VA’s Disability and Medical Assessment, project managers, and others developed the toxic exposure screening clinical reminders and recommendations.

The VA said more than 19,000 veterans were screened during the testing phase to ensure it prioritized the veteran experience and centered on veteran needs. Moreover, the agency said it found a 37% concern for exposure among the veterans who were screened.

Terrence Hayes, Department of Veterans Affairs press secretary and Army veteran, takes part in a demonstration of the VA’s new toxic screening on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, with Dr. Joel Nations, a Navy veteran and deputy chief of staff for operations at the Washington DC Veterans Administration Medical Center.

Terrence Hayes, Department of Veterans Affairs press secretary and Army veteran, takes part in a demonstration of the VA’s new toxic screening on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, with Dr. Joel Nations, a Navy veteran and deputy chief of staff for operations at the Washington DC Veterans Administration Medical Center. (Sara Samora/Stars and Stripes)

The screening can take a minimum of five minutes. However, Hayes, a retired Army veteran who deployed to Iraq from December 2006 to March 2008, took part in a screening demonstration Thursday. He said the screening can take longer, depending on how veterans answer the questions. Based on the answers, their primary care provider will then recommend a consultation for follow-up care appointment such as lab tests.

“The results will help VA understand the scope of the issue and monitor veterans for related illnesses, help VA better care for veterans and steer VA research on combat toxins,” Hayes said in a prepared statement.

After veterans complete their toxic exposure screening, they will receive print materials that provide information about the types of toxic exposures, how to get involved in the VA’s health registries such as the burn pit registry and submit a claim, presumptive conditions, and connect with a VA health care team.

Rosie Torres, co-founder and executive director of the advocacy group Burn Pits 360, said the VA’s quick screening is concerning and it’s just a first step in connecting veterans to experts and resources.

Torres’ husband, Army Reserve veteran LeRoy Torres, deployed to Iraq and returned with constrictive bronchiolitis, a respiratory disease that consists of inflammation of small airways. He also has toxic brain injury and autoimmune issues. Torres began the efforts to lobby for legislation 13 years ago.

“It is our moral obligation to provide our veterans with proper treatment and benefits,” Torres said. “Veterans are still sick and dying, and we owe them the right to life. We need more than a 10-minute exam. We need specialized health care and technology that will tell our warfighters what the next few years mean for them and their families. Every day we wait is another flag draped over a coffin.”

Veterans who want a toxic screening can contact their local primary care provider through VA’s secure message or call 1-800-MyVA411 and press 8.

Veterans who are not enrolled in the VA health system but want a toxic screening can apply at https://www.va.gov/health-care/apply/application/introduction.

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Sara Samora is a Marine Corps veteran and the veterans reporter for Stars and Stripes. A native Texan, she previously worked at the Houston Business Journal and the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. She also serves on the boards of Military Veterans in Journalism and the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals.

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