CALHAN, Colo. — The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is conducting several outreach campaigns in-person and online to reach veterans suffering from exposure to toxic chemicals, ahead of an August deadline to apply for back paid benefits.
The PACT Act, passed last year, expanded VA health care and benefits for those exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances. It constitutes what “may be the largest health care and benefit expansion in VA history,” the agency says on its website.
Several representatives from the VA have set up at the El Paso County Fair in Calhan to interact with veterans, answer their questions about benefits and coverage, and assist them in filing with the PACT Act.
“Nothing like this has been done in history — in terms of, like, our benefits — for veterans with a number of presumptive conditions, the types of exposure, the areas these veterans were exposed,” said Cory Givhan, outreach specialist with the VA in Colorado Springs. “You know, we just feel obligated to get out and get the word out to them.”
Vietnam veteran Bill Ramsey, who went through the initial application process at the El Paso County Fair, said the PACT Act represents a potential game changer for him. He believes he was exposed to harmful toxins while serving, and is now experiencing several serious health issues.
“I was on a ship that may have been to those occasions where they might have gotten some Agent Orange,” Ramsay said. “And so, I wanted to come find out about the program, because I’ve had a lot of medical issues.”
The PACT Act lowers the burden of proof for veterans experiencing symptoms from a growing list of health concerns being linked to toxic chemical exposure. The VA is now legally allowed to “presume” the health issues are related to exposure during service, and offer health care coverage and benefits.
Comedian Jon Stewart brought national attention to the PACT Act in 2022 when it was held up in Congress, and put pressure on lawmakers to pass the bill and help suffering veterans. The bill was signed into law by President Joe Biden on August 10, 2022.
Now the race is on to get impacted veterans enrolled. While there is no deadline to apply for PACT Act benefits going forward, veterans must apply by August 9 if they want to receive back payments for health care costs incurred since the law was signed. A representative for the VA told Denver7 back payments could total $20,000 or more for some families.
“There’s so many areas, so many presumptive conditions now, that the government recognizes that you’ve been exposed to these things in these areas [and they] could be the actual cause of your illness,” said Givhan. “And I would just tell veterans: don’t diagnose yourself. Just file a claim and let us do the work.”
Veterans in Colorado looking to file for PACT Act coverage, or be screened for related illnesses, can visit the VA’s website or call 720-857-2511. An in-person event is also scheduled for Friday, July 21 at the RMR VA Medical Center in Aurora, in which veterans will be able to start PACT Act claims, complete initial toxic exposure screenings and enroll in VA health care.