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Philly VA hospital hosts town hall for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals

Michael J. Crescenz
Philadelphia VA Medical Center
A representative from the Veteran Business Administration helps a veteran file a claim.

Philadelphia’s VA Medical Center is reaching out to veterans dealing with the health consequences of being exposed to toxic chemicals during their military service.

On Thursday, representatives from the Veterans Business Administration of Philadelphia-Wilmington met at the VA Medical Center of Philadelphia to host an information session on the PACT Act — Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics.

Signed into law by President Biden in August 2022, the PACT Act requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover health conditions, such as cancer or hypertension, caused by toxicants, such as Agent Orange, and those emanating from burn pits used during the Vietnam War, Gulf War, and post-9/11 era in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The new awareness campaign about the benefits of the PACT Act encourages veterans to file a claim for health care coverage under the new law.

“It’s very important that we’re in the community so that we can get the word out about PACT and how it can benefit veterans and their families,” said Lillie Nuble, executive director of the VBA Philadelphia-Wilmington regional office.

“If you think you’re eligible for benefits, we can help you and assist you to file those claims right here. If you have a claim pending, we can tell you what the status is [or] if we need additional information,” she said.

Karen Flathery-Oxler, a 38-year Navy veteran and director of the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center of Philadelphia, called the PACT Act a “game changer.”
She said that the law largely removes the burden of proof of exposure from the veteran — a process that had been “arduous” before the act was signed.

“A lot of medical documentation was required: where you were stationed, how long you were there, and evidence of disease progression. There would be denials based on either forms [being incomplete] or not having all the documentation needed,” she said. Before PACT, wait times for approval decisions of health care claims could be long, she added. Even if a case was won, many veterans didn’t see their benefits, “sometimes until down the road — 10 or 15 years.”

Derek Jones was among the many veterans who attended the event. A Gulf War veteran, he was exposed to asbestos while serving and is now 100% disabled by a host of maladies, one of which has impacted his lymph nodes.

He said that receiving health care for toxic chemical exposures is difficult, and many veterans have been left untreated. He hopes that PACT will be a turning point for him and others to file claims and receive approval for care.

“They’re trying to help now, unlike before,” he said. “Some families have already lost loved ones. There’s just not an answer for everything.”

Elfin Rivera, Jr.,a disabled Operation Iraqi Freedom Navy veteran, also attended the event. While he is not disabled because of toxic chemicals, he knows veterans who have been exposed and are struggling. He attended the event to obtain information to help them file claims for benefits.

“At the end of the day, it’s veterans who help veterans. And while other people will care deeply about veterans, it’s fellow veterans who love their veterans,” he said.

“I think people will walk away with some good information, because I know the organizations here do well with following up,” he said.

Last summer, lawmakers in Washington passed the PACT Act with bipartisan support on a 86-11 Senate vote, after initially falling to pass a procedural vote. The bill was temporarily blocked, which received widespread criticism from many, including former Daily Show host Jon Stewart.

In March, the VA’s Veterans Business Administration received more than 405,000 PACT Act-related claims, and over 180,000 have been completed. There is currently no deadline to file a claim, but the VA is encouraging veterans who may be eligible to apply at www.va.gov.

Marcus Biddle | WHYY