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VA secretary encourages Nevada vets to file for ‘burn pit’ benefits

Updated October 4, 2022 - 5:38 pm

On Wednesday, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough urged Nevada veterans to seek medical care and compensation under the PACT Act, one of the largest expansions of VA health care services in U.S. history.

The legislation, signed into law by President Joe Biden on Aug. 10, expanded services for millions of veterans who served at military bases where toxic smoke billowed from huge “burn pits.”

“The prevalence of these burn pits, and these toxic exposures, is significant,” said McDonough during his first visit to the VA medical center in North Las Vegas.

The secretary said he was promoting the legislation to encourage veterans to overcome any hesitancy in filing due to distrust of the VA or other issues.

Some veterans are reluctant to file believing their claim will come at the expense of other veterans. “They’ve internalized the warrior ethos,” McDonough said. “They think that, hey, there’s somebody who needs it more than me.”

But he said, “We really want our veterans – all of our veterans – to file their claims and file them now.”

Claims for compensation will begin to be processed Jan. 1, he said, and may take weeks or months to process depending on their complexity. For approved claims filed before Aug. 10, 2023, benefits will be paid retroactively to Aug. 10, 2022, when Biden signed into law the PACT (Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics) Act.

The law, passed with bipartisan support, is aimed at providing treatment and compensation for chronic illnesses that veterans have blamed on the burn pits. These pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, medical equipment and human waste. However, 70 percent of disability claims involving exposure to the pits were denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The law directs officials to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, helping veterans get disability payments without having to prove the illness was the result of their service.

There also are toxic-exposure provisions for Vietnam War veterans. The legislation adds hypertension to a list of ailments presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military to clear vegetation.

For veterans already enrolled with a disability rating, “we want you to apply for additional conditions because there are more than 20 conditions now presumptively connected to your service,” McDonough said.

Although the burn pit provision has gotten the most attention, other services also are being expanded. A one-year special enrollment period for health care launched Oct. 1 for some veterans.

“We are in this period where there is expanded access, especially for Iraq and Afghan vets, or vets who served throughout Central Command from Somalia in the southwest all the way up to and through Uzbekistan,” he said.

“And if you served there, please come see us.”

He encouraged veterans to apply at VA.gov/PACT or by calling 800-698-2411.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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