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.

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. (Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — More than 250,000 claims from veterans for PACT Act benefits have been processed by the Department of Veterans Affairs since the law was enacted, agency officials told House lawmakers on Tuesday.

“At this time across the agency, it has truly been an all-hands-on-deck effort to prepare for and execute on the delivery of the PACT Act,” the VA’s Undersecretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs told members of a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs subpanel.

The law, signed by President Joe Biden on Aug. 10, 2022, is called the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, or PACT Act.

The law seeks to provide an easy 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 dispose of garbage, jet fuel and other materials. Veterans diagnosed with cancer, respiratory issues and lung disease at young ages have blamed exposure to the toxic fumes from these pits, but the VA contended for years that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support their claims.

Since the law went into effect in August, Jacobs said the department has received nearly 575,000 claims and with about 280,000 claims completed. According to the department’s PACT Act performance dashboard, 251,584 claims have been processed with an 80% approval rating as of May 12.

The law also improves the VA’s workforce and claims processing to speed up efforts to meet the needs of veterans and establish 31 new VA health care facilities in 19 states. Additionally, it expands health care eligibility to post-9/11 combat veterans and adds 23 conditions related to burn pits and other toxic exposures to the VA’s list of service presumptions.

However, some lawmakers had concerns about VA employee training, the department’s community outreach and how claims move through the system.

Rep. Morgan Luttrell, R-Texas, a former Navy SEAL and chairman of the House VA Committee’s Subpanel on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Oversight, said he is concerned about employees not learning from their mistakes made if the claim “moves up the chain of command” but never comes back to the original person who started the processing.

“That seems like we can tweak that a bit and make it more advantageous,” he said.

Jacobs said he has asked for “wholesale review” with the goal to have an answer to Luttrell’s by the end of the year.

“I can appreciate the challenge of trying to get something done in a short window, but I hate to think that if we wait until the end of the calendar year, how many claims will have issues,” Luttrell responded. “I would ask the department to move on this hurriedly. I just want to make sure we up here and the department are doing what they need to be doing in order to prevent this.”

The VA has been encouraging all veterans and survivors of toxic exposure to file a claim for PACT Act related benefits. Department officials said there is an upcoming deadline on Aug. 9. Most veterans who file a claim, or submit their intent to file a claim, before Aug. 10, 2023, will have their benefits, if granted, backdated to Aug. 10, 2022, when Biden signed the act into law.

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Matthew Adams covers the Defense Department at the Pentagon. His past reporting experience includes covering politics for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and The News and Observer. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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