United States Sen. Amy Klobuchar and local veterans service officers met amid a crowd of veterans at the American Legion Post 37 in St. Peter on Saturday to bring awareness to a recent expansion of VA health care benefits for veterans.
Nicollet County Veterans Service Officer Nathan Tish, Le Sueur County VSO Mark Roemhildt and Blue Earth County VSO Michael McLaughlin joined the senator in a table discussion on the PACT Act, which expands health coverage for veterans exposed to toxic substances and fumes from sources like burn pits and Agent Orange.
The 2022 federal legislation is one of the largest expansions to veterans benefits in history with the potential to affect up to 3.5 million veterans. The PACT Act was signed in response to concerns that exposure to noxious smoke from burn pits during military service have contributed to the development respiratory illnesses and cancers in veterans.
Burn pits — trenches where unneeded clothes, plastics, waste and fuel were set ablaze for disposal — came to prominence on US military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Long-term exposure to burn pits have been linked to a number of serious medical conditions including cancers and respiratory disorders. But for individual veterans suffering from those ailments, establishing a link is difficult to prove and health claims filed by veterans related to burn pits have often been denied by the VA.
“From 2007 to 2020, the VA denied 75% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure on the basis that they weren’t service related,” said Klobuchar. “Yet for so many of our veterans and our doctors and health providers the connection was clear.“
The PACT Act has removed this burden of proof for Gulf War-era and post 9/11 veterans exposed to burn pits during their service for over 20 conditions including over a dozen varieties of cancer and respiratory illnesses like asthma, COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis and more.
The VA presumes a veteran has been exposed to burn pits if they served in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Uzbekistan or Yemen on or after Sept. 11, 2001 or if they were stationed in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia or the United Arab Emirates on or after the invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990.
“Basically it alleviates any burden of proof for the veteran to prove that these specific diseases are indeed related to toxins,” said Tish. “Washington has passed legislation that says the VA must concede it’s at least as likely as not that these corresponding diseases and illnesses are linked to exposures and toxins in those qualifying areas.”
The legislation further expands coverage to Vietnam-era veterans exposed to the tactical herbicide Agent Orange for high blood pressure (hypertension) and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS).
Since the legislation passed in August, 2022, Roemhildt said he has witnessed a significant increase in claims at his Le Sueur County office, particularly from Vietnam-era veterans seeking coverage for hypertension.
“In August of 2022, there was a huge uptick and it’s kind of maintained. It’s a tangible difference of traffic into my office, which is really inspirational and we’re able to help people,” said Roemhildt. “One of the most rewarding pieces of this job is when a veteran comes in and we’re able to help them file a claim.”
McLaughlin reported a similar increase in interest at the Blue Earth County Veterans Service Office.
“People came into our office for the first time that never thought they were eligible for benefits, never thought they were eligible for healthcare — just the sheer notoriety it got from being passed really was a big PR win for us and got people to come in and talk to us,” said McLaughlin.
Tish encouraged veterans in the audience to share the information on the PACT Act with anyone who could benefit.
“We’re counting on you, unofficially, as leaders in the community when it comes to spreading the word to your family, your friends and your neighbors,” said Tish. “If you’ve got people who might be a good fit for this make sure you are referring them down to your county veterans services officers.”
McLaughlin noted that enrolling for coverage will also help the VA collect data for research which could expand the list of conditions eligible for coverage related to burn pits and Agent Orange.
“The more data they can collect on us the more they can connect the dots on streamlining additional conditions,” said McLaughlin.
Tish added that county veterans service officers are currently pushing for the passage of the CVSO Act, which would award $250 million in competitive grants to assist county veterans services with the added caseload from the PACT Act and prior VA service expansions. The bill was originally included in the PACT Act before being removed during the legislative process.
Additionally, Vietnam veteran and Last Man Club Treasurer Ron Haugen asked Klobuchar to support the Elizabeth Dole Home Care Act, a bipartisan Senate proposal in the Veterans Affairs committee which would expand access to home and community-based alternative care programs to veterans at all VA medical facilities.
Klobuchar indicated she would be supportive of the bill based on Haugen’s summary, but would need to review it and would follow up with him the following week.