About 50 veterans converged at the La Plata County Fairgrounds on Friday to discuss and pursue PACT Act benefits. The law offers health care to veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, burn pits and other toxic substance while in service.
“Are there any congressional members or representatives in the audience? Well, you really got this one right,” said Robert McKenrick, director of VA Health Care in New Mexico.
The PACT Act – Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics – was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Aug. 10, 2022, marking the largest expansion of health care and benefits in VA history.
McKenrick sat next to a screen displaying a list of health conditions and illnesses connected to toxic exposure. He called them “presumptive conditions” and explained that if a veteran experiences a condition, the PACT Act automatically assumes it is directly related to their service.
The PACT Act simplifies the burden of proof for veterans. People only need to meet the service requirements for the presumption, instead of proving that their disability is a result of their military service.
The benefits extend to those who served in the Gulf War era, Vietnam era, Iraq and Afghanistan era, or were exposed to radiation or Camp Lejeune contaminated water.
There are more than 250 presumed conditions related to toxic exposure listed on the Veterans Affairs website, ranging from kidney cancer to chronic bronchitis.
A Vietnam veteran who attended the meeting said he suffered from a skin condition caused by Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a herbicide used during the Vietnam War to clear dense jungle foliage and contains a dangerous chemical contaminant called dioxin. More than 80 million liters of Agent Orange were sprayed from 1961 to 1971.
Many other veterans in attendance were exposed to toxic chemicals from open burn pits, which were used to dispose of waste collected on military bases. Waste included items that produced dangerous toxic smoke when burned, such as plastics, rubber and chemical mixtures.
Veterans are able to apply for PACT Act benefits anytime, but VA officials encouraged people to apply before Aug. 9 to receive benefits to be backdated to Aug. 10, 2022.