TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — More than 600,000 veterans have filed claims for toxic exposure-related diseases added to Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare coverage by the historic PACT Act.
Florida was No. 2 among states in number of claims, with just under 58,000 filed with the multi-billion-dollar program that included more than 20 new presumptive conditions.
That means “entitlement to disability compensation may be presumed under circumstances described” in the law, according to the VA.
The PACT Act also expanded benefits for veterans who served in locations that were not covered before the law was signed last August.
Undersecretary for Benefits Josh Jacobs said the VA is ready for more applications in what is considered the largest veteran healthcare expansion in decades.
“We think there are millions more veterans who are eligible,” Jacobs said. “So, one of the things we want to do is to make sure veterans know about the law and apply for the benefits they earned.”
Jacobs emphasized veterans who file claims before Aug. 9—the day before the 1-year anniversary of the law— may qualify for a year of retroactive payments.
But benefits earned by veterans in the Tampa Bay area and across the country are not always approved without denials and delays.
Ann and Stephen Nemeth spent years trying to get help after health issues forced him into a wheelchair. The benefits for the Vietnam combat veteran were approved after a report by 8 On Your Side.
Lakeith Amir’s head injury was ignored for decades until the VA was convinced to take another look at his case.
Tampa Bay area veteran Lonnie Kilpatrick is the namesake for a bill that became part of the PACT Act.
Kilpatrick talked with 8 On Your Side a short time before he died from cancer about two years ago. During the Vietnam war, he was exposed to agent orange in Guam, one of the coverage areas added by the 2022 law.
When asked what he would tell a veteran frustrated by VA red tape and lost documents from past claims, Jacobs said he has “heard that” himself.
“VA wants to serve you as well as you served this country and we want the opportunity to earn your trust or re-earn it,” Jacobs said. “If you previously filed a claim that was denied and you think you’re eligible now under the PACT Act, you can file a supplemental claim.”
Jacobs said new technology and a sharp increase in VA staffing are so far keeping the process running smoothly.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 was the last time VA healthcare expanded this much, so quickly.
“What we’re trying to do is beat the previous records to get more veterans to file for the benefits they earned and deserve,” Jacobs said. “We’ve been able to bring on board and train many new employees while we’re also implementing process improvements and new technology.”
Jacobs said that has led to the VA “delivering more benefits to more veterans than at any other time” in history.
Nearly 280,000 cases have been approved, and nearly half the claims were processed in 125 days or less, according to data on the VA Pact Act dashboard.