Millions of U.S. veterans will be eligible beginning March 5 for health care with the Department of Veterans Affairs under an accelerated effort to provide benefits and services to those exposed to toxic substances while serving.
The VA announced Monday that all veterans who have served in a combat zone since the Vietnam War, as well as those who participated in training or operations and came into contact with hazardous materials, will be able to enroll in VA health care.
The expansion of health care benefits was mandated by the PACT Act , signed into law by President Joe Biden in August 2022 , which required the expansion to occur by 2032. VA officials said last month the acceleration is a result of a hiring blitz made possible by provisions in the law.
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"If you're a veteran who may have been exposed to toxins or hazards while serving our country, at home or abroad, we want you to come to us for the health care you deserve," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Monday in a release.
Under the PACT Act, more than 100,000 veterans have enrolled in VA health care and roughly 760,000 disability claims have been approved. VA officials did not detail exactly how many veterans now will be eligible for care under the expansion but said the figure is in the "millions."
"Beginning March 5, we're making millions of veterans eligible for VA health care years earlier than called for by the PACT Act," VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said. "We want to bring all of these veterans to VA for the care they've earned and deserve."
The expansion allows all veterans who deployed to combat zones in support of the Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan wars to enroll in VA health care.
In addition, veterans who never deployed but were exposed to pollutants while participating in a known "toxic exposure risk activity," or TERA, either in the U.S. or abroad, will be eligible.
That would include exposure while on active duty, active-duty training or inactive-duty training to: air pollutants from burn pits, particulate matter, sulfur or oil well fires; chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, contaminated water or depleted uranium from embedded shrapnel; occupational hazards such as lead, industrial solvents, toxic paint, asbestos and firefighting foam; radiation, including nuclear weapons handling, maintenance and detonation, X-rays and occupational exposure; and chemical or biological weapons or nerve agents.
According to the VA, the department will use service records and other resources to determine whether a veteran participated in a TERA.
Veterans are not required to have a service-connected disability or file a compensation claim to be eligible for VA care. New enrollees will have access to a toxic exposure screening provided by their primary care physician and may be referred to specialty care depending on need, Elnahal said during a call with reporters last month.
They also will be assessed for placement in the VA's priority-based health system and referred to the Veterans Benefits Administration if they qualify for additional benefits.
Priority group placement determines whether a veteran is required to make copayments for appointments or prescriptions, depending on treatment or the medications.
During a press conference Monday, Elnahal said that, by law, veterans receiving treatment for exposure-related illnesses will not make copayments for appointments related to that care.
"This is a real economic benefit opportunity for veterans but also a clinical benefit," Elnahal said.
The Veterans Health Administration has set a goal to hire 52,000 employees this fiscal year, which, when factoring in attrition, should grow its workforce by 3%. Elnahal said the increases could help to absorb new patients, meet demand and standardize -- or even improve -- wait times.
"Challenges abound with hiring for every single health care system, so we are not complacent at all," Elnahal said. "We're continuing to make the changes we need to make the hiring process better and faster."
The VA is encouraging veterans to apply for care or benefits by visiting the VA.gov/PACT website or calling 1-800-MYVA411.