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Veterans see historic expansion of benefits for toxic exposure as new law nears anniversary

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Although Leger had previously received disability benefits for post-traumatic stress, migraines and a broken hip, it wasn’t until President Joe Biden signed a law known as the PACT Act into law. last year that his monthly payments were extended to take into account the impact of the fireplaces. . Now 34, Leger and her fiancé have moved from a cramped townhouse to a larger home in suburban Tampa, Florida, where their four children can each have a bedroom.

“I still wake up pinching myself,” she said.

Leger is one of the recipients of the biggest expansion of veterans aid in decades, and the administration is racing to enroll as many people as possible as the law approaches its first anniversary. Although there is no deadline to apply, anyone who files a claim or simply signals their intention to do so by Wednesday could receive payments retroactive to last year if the claim is approved.

Under the law, certain cancers and ailments are presumed to be linked to the burning pits that were used to dispose of waste and potentially toxic materials. For veterans who served in the Vietnam War, hypertension and other conditions have been added to the list of problems believed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, which was used by the military American to clean the vegetation.

Biden will mark the law’s anniversary on Thursday at a veterans hospital in Salt Lake City. According to administration statistics, the Department of Veterans Affairs has received nearly 786,000 disability applications under the PACT Act, processed nearly 435,000 and approved more than 348,000.

About 111,000 veterans suspected of being exposed to toxic substances have enrolled in VA health care since the law was enacted. Additionally, more than 4.1 million veterans have completed toxic screenings, which are questionnaires to analyze their potential exposure and determine if further testing is needed.

Implementing the legislation has proven difficult for the VA despite hiring new staff to deal with a historic influx of claims. The backlog is around 266,000, meaning waits of at least four months for applications to be processed, and the list is expected to reach 450,000 in October and 730,000 in April. At a recent surveillance hearing. Senator Thom Tillis (RN.C.) said he was concerned about “bad trends”.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said his agency was doing better than expected based on internal projections and using new technology to process applications faster.

“Am I satisfied? I’m not,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Until every veteran in this country knows what is available to them, and has come and filed a claim, and then we have granted that claim for him or her, I will not be satisfied.”

Despite the growing backlog, the VA has maintained its outreach efforts. He spent $7.5 million on advertising, including a billboard in New York’s Times Square, and held events across the country. Comedian Jon Stewart, who played a leading role in promoting the PACT Act, contributed by post videos on social networks.

“The VA could have slowed him down to make his job easier,” said Allison Jaslow, a former Army captain who heads the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Advocacy Organization of America. “But to their credit, they didn’t.”

Jaslow said the department is “doing some pretty incredible work considering the influx of claims that have come in.”

Raising awareness pays off. Eli Feret, a 36-year-old former Army captain who lives outside of Denver, said he only applied a few days ago. After expecting a more archaic process, Feret said he was “pleasantly surprised” to be able to finalize his claim on his smartphone in half an hour.

Cole Lyle, a 33-year-old former Marine corporal in Alexandria, Va., who heads the advocacy organization Mission Roll Call, made a similar decision. “I was getting bombarded by Jon Stewart on Twitter and a few other people, and I thought I really had to drop it,” he said.

“I don’t see the growing backlog as a good thing,” he added, “but I think it’s a good thing that veterans are postulating, actually.”

For a while last year, it looked like the PACT Act might not pass. The legislation was unexpectedly stalled when Republicans backed down, leading some supporters to start camping outside the Capitol. Biden had contracted the coronavirus and couldn’t make it in person, so he sent McDonough off with pizza and he spoke to veterans on FaceTime.

The pressure campaign worked, and Congress passed the measure. It was a bipartisan success but also a personal victory for Biden, who has long believed his eldest son, Beau, developed fatal brain cancer while serving near burns in Iraq as a captain in the Delaware National Guard.

McDonough sees the PACT Act as a turning point for the VA, making the nation’s largest health care system more nimble, robust and competitive.

“The President has told us very clearly that this new law may be the biggest expansion of VA benefits and care in VA history,” he said.

The legislation allowed the VA to expand its facilities through 31 leases, and it is pursuing them in 19 states. VA employees can now receive higher bonuses and more student loan assistance than before. There are additional incentives for recruitment, retention and resettlement.

Over the past year, the VA has grown by more than 21,000 healthcare workers and 4,300 employees for benefits processing.

But officials said the process remains too slow. Hiring a new healthcare worker can take several months as the VA checks backgrounds and certifications, a delay that can lead applicants to find jobs elsewhere.

McDonough said the agency is not “where we need to be”, adding that “we will continue to work on this”.

When former Army National Guard Sgt. Iona Bussière turned 40 last year, she had her first mammogram and discovered breast cancer – stage 3 on one side, stage 2 on the other.

Since then, there has been a blur of treatments, including months of grueling chemotherapy — “for the past three weeks I was like a zombie,” she said — and a recent mastectomy. Bussiere, who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, is starting radiation therapy and expects to be on pills for years to come.

Under the PACT Act, breast cancer is presumed to be caused by serving near burning fires. Bussiere said they were “everywhere” during his deployments to Iraq and Kuwait.

Although she wishes the VA had started providing cancer screenings sooner, she said the benefits also bring “a lot of relief.”

“I’ve heard horror stories about people who have cancer and are unable to work and the bills are piling up,” Bussière said.

Marcellus Beasley, 60, served in the Air Force during the first Gulf War, when he was based in Turkey and traveled to Iraq. He said there was always sand, dirt and smoke, sometimes from burning fires. When he blew his nose in the morning, black stuff would come out.

“It’s almost like working in a fireplace,” he says.

Beasley found the VA cumbersome and frustrating after leaving military service.

“You always thought the VA was against you,” he said. “For example, they didn’t want you to be paid.”

But he said recent changes have made services more efficient, particularly at his facility in Wilmington, Delaware, where a worker helped him learn about the PACT law. He sought help for his psoriasis, a skin condition, and his disability benefits were expanded.

“It had a huge impact on me,” he said.

It’s not just veterans who receive benefits through the PACT Act. More than 16,000 surviving family members have submitted claims. One of those eligible for compensation is Ailyn Colby, 59, whose husband, Glenn, died of colon cancer six years ago.

He was 51 and a former major in the Rhode Island National Guard who served in Iraq.

“He never really told me about his experience because maybe I would worry too much about him,” said Colby, who lives near Hartford, Connecticut.

After his death, she applied for survivor benefits and was denied, describing it as “a horrible experience”.

But when she reapplied under the PACT Act in April, the application was approved.

“I thought they still remembered the family,” she said.



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