SC veterans call PACT Act ‘monumental victory’ in expanding healthcare benefits

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Published: Aug. 10, 2022 at 7:48 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Millions of American veterans will now have access to healthcare benefits for illnesses they developed following their service.

President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act into law Wednesday, considered the largest health care and benefit expansion in the history of the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Veterans, they knew what they were getting into when they volunteered to serve,” John Johnson, who served two combat tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan during his 32-year career in the US Army, said. “They knew they could be exposed to combat and could be exposed to toxins, and they’d do it all again. Now the country owes veterans a great debt they can never repay.”

But Johnson, who now works as the department service officer with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of South Carolina, said the changes the PACT Act brings are a step in the right direction.

The PACT Act removes red tape veterans and their families previously had to cut through to receive care from the VA.

Many Americans who served in the post-9/11 conflicts believe respiratory illnesses and cancers they have developed were caused by toxic exposures, such as burn pits.

“Burn pits were as big as a football field or even acres, and it was all the waste that soldiers used: plastics, bottles, all kinds of different containers that, once you burned them, put off the toxic elements,” Johnson said.

“A lot of them, a lot of them in Iraq. Pretty much every base almost had them,” added Ed Stefanak Jr., who served nearly a decade in the US Army and now works as state commander of the VFW Department of South Carolina.

VA Outreach Specialist Robert Cash, a 22-year Army veteran, said he developed asthma and chronic sinusitis after serving three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.

“You had no choice if you were an average troop in theater to breath in those particulates,” he said.

Both Cash’s conditions are now considered presumptive because of their connection to burn pit exposure, along with many types of cancers and respiratory illnesses.

More than 20 new medical conditions were added to that group once Biden signed the PACT Act into law Wednesday.

Before this, if veterans had one of these conditions or illnesses, they had to prove it was connected to their service to receive treatment through the VA’s healthcare system.

Many of them didn’t have this documentation, so their care may have been denied.

But now, if veterans served in certain locations in the Vietnam, Gulf War, and post-9/11 eras and they have one of these presumptive conditions, they will automatically qualify for that care without having to first prove it was connected to their service.

“Instead of the VA deny and let us die, we’re going to get covered and taken care of, so this is a great deal for us,” Stefanak Jr. said. “They spend trillions of dollars to send us to war when they can’t spend billions to take care of us, so this is huge for the veteran community.”

According to the White House, this law will provide healthcare benefits to more than 5 million Americans who served from Vietnam to the post-9/11 wars.

Veterans or their families have to first file a claim with the VA to apply for these benefits, and organizations such as the VFW offer help with navigating this process.

“This is a monumental victory for the VFW and the veteran community,” Johnson said. “It’s a long time coming, and this is the first step in the right direction to start honoring our veterans’ sacrifices.”

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