TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Veterans Affairs Administration has received more than a quarter of a million benefit claims from veterans now covered by the Pact Act that was inspired in part by a Bay Area man’s wait for help.
The law will bring the largest healthcare benefit expansion in the VA’s history according to Deputy Under Secretary Ronald Burke Jr, who said 260,000 claims have been received so far.
“No bones about it,” Burke said. “It’s a big influx but we are prepared for that.”
The Pact Act expanded health care and benefits for exposure to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxins, while also adding other areas where veterans served.
Changes in who qualified did not come fast enough for Holiday veteran Lonnie Kilpatrick, but the law he helped to inspire is expected to help millions.
Kilpatrick, 67, died in 2018 after a battle with cancer that was caused by Agent Orange exposure.
The Lonnie Kilpatrick Central Pacific Relief Act was aimed at expanding coverage for the defoliant for personnel who served outside Vietnam. Kilpatrick was stationed in Guam during the Vietnam war.
During an interview with 8 on Your Side, Kilpatrick told Steve Andrews how shocked he was that VA doctors missed the cancer that eventually killed him.
“How the hell do they do that?” Kilpatrick said about 4 months before he died.
Burke said 85,000 of the 260,000 Pact Act claims filed so far have been processed, with 80 percent approved. Millions of claims are expected over the next decade, according to Burke.
He said the VA is using paperless technology that will allow claims to be processed throughout the country.
“We have an ability through our national work queue to move workload around the country where capacity exists,” Burke said. “We’re able to move that work so it’s processed more rapidly.”
Burke said the VA is also relying on other technology to handle the new stream of claims.
“We’re also employing new tools to help to retrieve medical information from a myriad of locations and populate that information into a decision support tool,” Burke said.
He said that will help claim examiners make decisions with higher accuracy, but he acknowledged there will be veterans who disagree with the decisions.
“I would ask [those veterans] to reach back into VA talk to an accredited representative,” Burke said. “It’s too early in the process to see any impact with respect to the appellate world but we’re going to continue to monitor the impact of our claims including those who decide to appeal the initial decision.”
According to Burke, 2,000 employees were added to the VA last year and another 1,900 are expected to be hired this year. He said there is an emphasis on training and retaining personnel.
Burke said the VA completed a record 1.7 million claims last year and that the agency expects to top that mark in 2023.