President Biden this week touted the year-old law meant to deliver the biggest expansion of veterans benefits in decades, though the effort is off to a rocky start.
Exactly 365 days after putting into effect the PACT Act – meant to expand Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits for former service members who were exposed to toxins during war and suffer illnesses as a result – Biden on Thursday pledged that “come hell or high water” the United States would compensate the veterans and their families “who have suffered the consequences of this tragedy.”
Since the bipartisan legislation was signed into law, more than 340,000 veterans and their survivors have had PACT Act-related claims approved, more than 4.1 million toxic exposure screenings have been given, and nearly $2 billion in benefits have been doled out to veterans and their surviving beneficiaries, according to the latest VA data.
But even with the progress, the administration is contending with stressed resources and delays in getting such aid into the hands of the veterans who seek it from a department that has a well-documented struggle with backlogs.
Those issues were on display this week with an eleventh-hour rush of online applications from veterans and their survivors trying to meet an Aug. 9 deadline for benefits backdated to August 10, 2022, the day Biden signed the PACT Act into law.
The surge led to some 5,600 people receiving an error message when they attempted to submit their information, with the VA late Wednesday announcing it was extending the deadline by five more days, until 11:59 p.m. Aug. 14, “out of an abundance of caution after experiencing technical difficulties” with the department’s website.
The VA’s phone lines also struggled under an “extremely high” call volume on Tuesday, with wait times spiking 10-15 minutes compared to the normal average of 10-30 seconds, according to the department.
“Bottom line: no veteran or survivor will miss out on a single day of benefits due to this issue,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough wrote Wednesday on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Anyone who now files a claim or an intent to do so by the new date could collect payments retroactive to last year should the VA approve it, otherwise there is no deadline to apply for PACT-related benefits.
Despite the VA’s mea culpa, House VA Committee Chairman Mike Bost (R-Ill.) said he wants answers on the technical issues that plagued the department’s website ahead of the cutoff period.
“VA’s failure to anticipate and prepare for the increased volume of submissions as the PACT Act deadline approached is unacceptable, given that the situation was easily foreseeable as this law is the largest expansion of healthcare and benefits for veterans in recent history,” Bost wrote in a letter sent Thursday to McDonough.
In addition to technical difficulties, the VA has also had to deal with quickly adding thousands of new staff members to contend with the large influx of PACT Act-related applications.
Such staff is needed to sift through the backlog of disability claims, with those sitting for at least four months without a decision expected to grow from about 272,000 to more than double that next year.
Many are not pleased with how the effort is faring, including retired Army Lt. Col. Beth Kubala, the executive director of the Betty and Michael D. Wohl Veterans Legal Clinic (VLC) at the Syracuse University College of Law.
While the PACT Act has opened doors for easier approval of benefits, the VA’s resources to process those claims are “stretched thin, resulting in delays in getting those benefits into the hands of the veterans who earned and deserve them,” Kubala told The Hill.
She said she’s seen this firsthand through the VLC, which serves many veterans and their families in upstate New York. Such individuals are missing out on benefits because of the significant holdup in applying and having their claims processed in a timely manner, according to Kubala.
But Biden pledged that the PACT Act means veterans won’t suffer “painful, frustrating delays and denials,” as it will allow the VA to move quicker to determine if a veteran qualifies for the benefits under the law such as monthly disability compensation and regular toxic exposure screenings.
Veterans care is an issue close to Biden’s heart, given that he believes that the brain cancer that killed his eldest son, Beau Biden, was caused by exposure to burn pits while he served with the Delaware National Guard in Iraq.
He again recounted that Beau Biden had lived “about 400 yards” from a large burn pit during the year he was stationed overseas.
“Everything you can imagine is thrown in these pits to incinerate the waste of war,” Biden said at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City. “Tires, poisonous chemicals, jet fuels and so much more. Toxic smoke, thick with poison, spreads through the air and into the lungs of our troops.”
When such troops came home, “many of them the fittest and best-trained warriors we ever sent anywhere…they weren’t the same.”
One of those former service members, Roger Pinto — a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who served more than six years in the Army as an infantry paratrooper — said he began experiencing his own burn pit-related symptoms in 2020 and discovered he had scarring along his esophagus that prevented him from eating solid food for three months.
Pinto, now an associate with the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told The Hill that both bases he was stationed at had active burn pits on them. The one in Afghanistan was within 15 yards of the tent he was living in.
He said he applied for benefits under the PACT Act on Tuesday, and while a lot of concern has been focused on the technical difficulties with the VA’s website, he was pleased with the level of communication the agency has given to veterans to alleviate their fears.
“I’m not concerned,” he said. “It’s just dealing with the common issues that come with any type of large program and benefits at the federal level.”
Moving forward, Pinto said he really wants to see an expansion of research into the various health impacts from exposure to burn pits as well as getting the message out to veterans that don’t know if they could qualify under the law.
“We want to let everybody that served know that they’ve got a right to these benefits, they have the ability to access them,” Pinto said.