Hawaii vets applaud expansion of healthcare benefits to those exposed to toxic chemicals
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed into law the “Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics” or PACT Act, expanding healthcare benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals during their military service.
It’s the largest expansion of federal health care benefits for toxin-exposed veterans in more than 30 years.
“To stop the needless suffering of our veterans who served our country so nobly and then came back and were exposed to things that were unbelievable,” said retired U.S. Army Colonel Deb Lewis, who is the past Hawaii commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The law should make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to treat veterans suffering from illnesses as a result of toxin exposure, such as inhaling fumes from burn pits ― trash sites used to burn military waste.
Lewis remembers them from her deployment in Iraq.
“It would be like fog. It would be that thick and acrid smell. That awful nasty burn in your nose kind of smell,” she said.
Many veterans were denied benefits from the VA because they couldn’t prove the toxic exposure made them sick. Advocates say service members aren’t the only ones who suffer.
“It’s hard enough if you lose the loved one in combat. This was 100 times worse, because they witnessed the suffering for days, months, years of suffering,” she said.
The new law helps veterans link 23 different respiratory illnesses and cancers to their service, making it easier for them to get healthcare.
“The burden is no longer on the veteran to prove it. It’s they just have to prove that they were there,” Lewis said. “it’s not giving us special privileges. It’s it’s helping us for things we earned. And we sacrificed.”
Among the veterans and families who joined President Biden for the signing: The sister of the late Hawaii lawmaker and U.S. Congressman Mark Takai ― a fierce advocate for military families.
“A lot of people knew Mark and they’re like, Oh, he did so good. And he was an advocate for us. And he really understood and fought for us,” said Nadine Takai Day. “I was so proud. But I really wish Mark was here.”
Takai died from pancreatic cancer in 2016.
But his work on the Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act in 2015 lives on in the PACT Act.
“It’s something that was very dear to his heart for the veterans that were afflicted by medical issues defending our country,” said Takai’s mother, Naomi.
“His work wasn’t forgotten,” she said. “And he really wanted to ensure that the World War II military personnel who were exposed to the radioactive material on Enewetak in the Marshall Islands, were taking care of all the servicemen and women who have fought for our country and they deserve the care that they deserve.”
The VA issued the following statement on the PACT Act:
We are recognizing more than 20 new presumptions of service connection for toxic exposure-related conditions, removing the burden of proof from Veterans to get the care and benefits they deserve.
We will bring generations of new Vets into VA health care, and increase the health care benefits of many more, which will result in better health outcomes across the board.
We will deliver benefits to many additional survivors of Veterans who passed away from toxic exposure.
And will can invest in our infrastructure and workforce to deliver those additional services—including modernizing 31 additional health care facilities.
Because these conditions have already taken a serious toll on so many Veterans and their families, we are considering all conditions established in the PACT Act to be presumptive on August 10, the date the bill was signed into law. We will begin processing those presumptive benefits for Veterans and survivors on the earliest date possible, which is January 1st.
We encourage all Veterans and survivors to apply for benefits today, and to visit www.va.gov/PACT, or call us at 1-800-MyVA411 to learn more about what this bill means for them and their families.
VA will communicate with Veterans and survivors every step of the way on this, and we will execute a comprehensive outreach plan to make sure that they get the benefits they deserve.
RESOURCES FOR VETS:
- Statement from VA Secretary Denis McDonough on the signing of the PACT Act
- Pact Act Webpage: www.va.gov/pact
- White House signing ceremony
- White House Fact Sheet
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