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Historic expansion of veterans' benefits focuses on toxic exposure

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The VA will expand research and treatment of the harmful effects of toxic exposure

The VA will expand resources to research and treat the harmful effects of toxic exposure.

America’s veterans often have health issues develop years after their return home. The latest expansion to VA benefits and eligibility will address the harmful effects of exposure to burn pits.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act was passed in August, making a historic expansion to veterans’ benefits. The bill, named in honor of a decorated combat medic who died from lung cancer, invests in resources to address the harmful effects of environmental exposure during their service.

Army Veteran Andy Chomko from Scranton was around burn pits when he was deployed to Iraq twice and Afghanistan.

“Just a big hole dug in the ground, trash piled, doused with diesel fuel, and then lit on fire to get rid of the trash. Anything that was not of use to a military serviceman or woman was burned,” he said. “Batteries, plastics, electronics, anything.”

Army Veteran Christine LeClair remembers the thick black smoke that covered her army base in Iraq.

“We burned human waste, medical waste, just about everything we put in those burn pits,” she said. “And we didn’t think about the toxic exposures and how it could affect us down the road.”

Conditions that have been diagnosed as a result include respiratory-related illnesses and several forms of cancer. The bill adds new conditions and locations of service that would determine presumptive exposure to toxins.

“This isn’t just a new Iraq and Afghanistan thing, it expands benefits to Vietnam and Gulf War vets, too. And there’s new presumptive conditions that are being added all the time,” LeClair said.

LeClair, who is Director of Veterans Affairs in Carbon County, says it’s important for veterans to learn about relevant resources.

“I see veterans from Vietnam who are still unaware of benefits that are available to them due to their exposure to Agent Orange, and this is decades later. So I think it’s really important that we continue to do outreach.”

The PACT Act invests in research, outreach, and treatment, and requires that the VA provides a screening for toxic exposure to all veterans enrolled. The VA plans to have a call center specifically for this issue up and running in January 2023.

The PACT Act includes additional investments to the VA’s resources to improve care to everyone enrolled. Survivors of qualifying veterans can also be eligible for the increase of services.

Veterans can file for this expansion of benefits online or through the county Veterans Affairs office.