More than a half million veteran claims have been filed under the PACT Act, the landmark legislation passed last year that eased requirements for many veterans exposed to burn pits and other battlefield pollutants to apply for disability benefits, the Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has so far processed more than 203,000 of those 500,000 PACT Act claims, resulting in more than $1 billion in compensation, with additional funds expected to be allocated as it works through all of the applications.
"We're proud that 500,000-plus veterans and survivors have applied for their hard-earned benefits to date, but we won't rest until every veteran and every survivor gets the VA health care and benefits they deserve," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a press release.
The VA began accepting claims under the PACT Act in August, shortly after President Joe Biden signed it into law, but the department was only allowed to start processing most claims beginning Jan. 1.
In addition to expanding health benefits to many veterans, the legislation added a number of illnesses that are now fast-tracked for affected veterans from the Persian Gulf, post-9/11 and Vietnam eras to apply for disability compensation.
As a result of the bill, more than 215,000 veterans have enrolled in VA health care, up 15% from the same period the previous year, according to the VA. The department also has screened more than 3 million veterans for toxic exposures, with roughly 42% of those saying they believe they encountered at least one toxic exposure during military service.
The top illnesses addressed in veterans disability claims under the PACT Act include hypertension, allergic rhinitis, sinusitis, asthma and genitourinary tract cancers. The VA said it has approved 80% of hypertension claims, 83% of rhinitis claims, 56% of sinusitis claims, 52% of asthma claims, and 69% of the genitourinary malignancies.
To handle the lingering backlog, the VA launched a massive recruitment effort to hire claims processors in late 2021, with a goal to add another 1,900 employees this year at the Veterans Benefits Administration.
The VBA has added 2,040 new employees since Oct. 1, according to the department.
As of April 22, the VA had 795,594 pending disability claims, with 213,005 considered to be backlogged -- older than 125 days.
On the health care side, the Veterans Health Administration hired 27,181 new employees in the first six months of the fiscal year -- the highest hiring level in the history of the VA, according to the department.
VA officials said Tuesday the new hires include physicians, nurses, licensed practical nurses, medical support assistants, nursing assistants, food service workers and environmental service workers.
"All of these Big Seven occupations have seen net growth this fiscal year," VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said during a press call with reporters. "In particular, we're seeing progress on medical support assistants, which was an area of severe shortage."
According to Elnahal, medical support assistants are largely responsible for administrative work, including scheduling veterans' medical appointments.
The VA is encouraging veterans to apply for disability benefits under the PACT Act before Aug. 10. Disability compensation claims filed before that date will be backdated to Aug. 10, 2022, meaning that if the veteran is awarded compensation as a result of his or her claim, they will receive back payments to that date.
Claims filed after Aug. 10 will be awarded based on the date of the filing.
The VA encourages veterans and survivors to learn more about the PACT Act by visiting its website or calling 1-800-MYVA411.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.