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Secretary McDonough says the VA handling high volume ahead of PACT deadline

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough speaks at 25th Anniversary Ceremony at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Va., Oct. 15, 2022. (Department of Defense)
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough speaks at 25th Anniversary Ceremony at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Va., Oct. 15, 2022. (Department of Defense)

The PACT (Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics) Act makes a number of new conditions eligible for VA benefits -- more than 5 million veterans qualify for new benefits under the legislation.

The law linked additional conditions related to exposure to Agent Orange, which impact mainly Vietnam Era veterans. Conditions related to exposure to burn pits were also included in law, opening coverage to a large group of post-9/11 veterans for the first time. Veterans who apply by Aug. 9 will have their claims backdated to August of last year. 

As the deadline approaches, WHRO Military Reporter Steve Walsh spoke with U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough. 

Denis McDonough: It’s been rare that we would get as many as 15,000 claims filed in a day, but each of the last three days of last week and that beginning this week, we've had 20,000 claims a day filed. That's the first time we've seen that. I'm hopeful. It's a recognition of veterans and families of survivors that we're finally making good on our promises to them.

Walsh: For a while, you guys were doing really well with bringing down your backlog and hiring more people. And those pandemic numbers were coming down. It started to go up again though, now that you have this rush with the PACT Act, where so many millions of veterans now qualifying. Where are we with the backlog?

McDonough: Our overall inventory of claims at VA right now is the highest it's ever been. We think that's a good thing because we think that's evidence of veterans expressing trust in us to handle their claims fairly and quickly and in a timely way. But we are going to see the backlog go up a little bit, but we've been getting ready for that. We now have 5,000 more claims processors and claims reviewers on our team. We've been hiring and training people going back to the end of 2021, just so that we'd be in a position to handle these claims quickly.

Walsh: Last time I looked at the numbers that the number one claim was for hypertension, which I associate with Vietnam vets. But what about the younger, Post-9-11 veterans. This is supposed to be for them. What are you doing to reach out to people who may not be going to the American Legion right now?

McDonough: Excellent question. So we are working very closely with the Legion and the VFW and the Vietnam Vets of America and others. But that's not all we're doing. So just this month, you know, starting last month in July and then up until August 9, we've had about 130 events in areas that we know are of higher density with veterans who qualify for the PACT Act and who are not yet enrolled. So we're bringing our services, our claims tables, our doctors and nurses to them. We're also making sure that we're reaching out to veterans, especially the younger generation of veterans, through things like social media, through texting, to make sure that veterans know what is available to them.

Walsh: I don't know if you've seen this, but AARP has put out a survey showing that vets are unaware that they can get free assistance, helping with the PACT Act claims through the VA and that there's a concern about scam artists and that people are being asked for their personal information. Have you heard this and what are you doing to try to combat that?

McDonough: Yeah, we are. We're constantly focused on how we make sure that we protect our veterans from scam artists who will tell them that they need to pay somebody to help them with their claim. And so we're watching that closely. We're working with veterans service organizations, with Congress and with vets themselves to make sure that they know that only accredited organizations should be helping them. Importantly, in a state like Virginia. Your state dedicates a lot of resources. So the state has veteran service officers, and each of your counties has veteran service officers who can help our veterans file claims, too. So there's no reason that our vets shouldn't have the support that they need to get their claims filed and get them filed timely.

To file an online PACT Act claim, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website. If you need assistance or have questions, contact the local benefits department at the Hampton VA.

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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