Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs has achieved a significant milestone under the leadership of President Biden by screening 5 million Veterans for potential toxic exposures.
This crucial initiative plays a vital role in identifying, understanding, and addressing potentially life-threatening health conditions among our nation’s heroes.
Among the 5 million Veterans screened, a substantial 2.1 million (43%) have reported at least one potential exposure.
The screening process, which takes just five to ten minutes, begins with VA health providers asking Veterans if they believe they have encountered any toxic exposures during their service.
If the answer is affirmative, further follow-up questions are posed, and Veterans are provided with information on benefits, registry-related medical exams, and additional clinical resources as needed.
Importantly, the responses gathered during these screenings are incorporated into the Veterans’ VA medical records, ensuring comprehensive and informed future care.
This remarkable achievement comes merely 13 months after the nationwide launch of the screening program at VA medical centers and clinics, in line with the PACT Act.
The PACT Act, signed into law by President Biden, has significantly expanded VA health care and benefits to millions of Veterans, paving the way for increased care and support in 2023.
Secretary Denis McDonough emphasizes the importance of screening Veterans for toxic exposures, as it allows for early detection and improved healthcare, ultimately leading to better quality of life for those who have served our country.
Under Secretary for Health Shereef Elnahal, M.D., highlights the progress made towards the goal of screening all Veterans enrolled in VA health care for toxic exposures every five years.
This milestone underscores the VA’s commitment to providing exposure-informed care to Veterans and addressing their unique healthcare needs.
The screening process encompasses a wide range of toxic exposures, with burn pits and Agent Orange being the most commonly reported, accounting for over 60% of Veteran responses.
Veterans of varying age groups have participated, with over 2.6 million being 65 years or older and more than 900,000 under 45.
Among the nearly 650,000 Women Veterans who regularly use VA care, more than 535,000 have been screened for toxic exposures.
While the toxic exposure screening does not play a role in determining disability compensation, it does provide an opportunity to connect Veterans with the resources they need to file a claim.
Each Veteran who reports a potential exposure receives a letter with information about how to apply for benefits.
To fulfill the goal of screening every Veteran enrolled in VA health care at least once every five years, VA is exploring new and innovative ways to reach out to Veterans, including those who are vulnerable or don’t routinely access VA care.
The Department is also in the pilot stages of developing a self-screening tool that will make the initial question of the screening even more easily accessible to Veterans with access to web-based electronic communications.
The PACT Act has expanded and extended access to VA health care for Veterans.
Thanks to the PACT Act and other new laws, many groups of Veterans are now able to enroll directly in VA health care without first applying for VA benefits – including World War II Veterans, Vietnam Veterans, Gulf War Veterans, Veterans who deployed to a combat zone and transitioned out of the service less than 10 years ago, and more.
As President Biden directed, all remaining toxic-exposed Veterans will be eligible to enroll directly in VA health care next year under the PACT Act – including any Veteran who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other combat zones during the Persian Gulf War or after 9/11.
Veterans who aren’t currently enrolled can submit an application and receive their toxic exposure screening after enrollment.
The PACT Act also expanded VA benefits for millions of Veterans, making more than 300 health conditions “presumptive” for service connection.
This means that if an eligible Veteran has one of these health conditions, VA automatically assumes that the condition was caused by the Veteran’s service and provides compensation and care accordingly.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday that it has screened 5 million veterans for potential toxic exposures since Congress passed and President Biden signed the PACT Act in 2022, although it’s unclear how many have since been diagnosed with related medical issues.
Of those 5 million, the Department of Veterans Affairs said 2.1 million Veterans self-reported experiencing at least one potential exposure.
The VA launched screenings at their medical centers and clinics as a part of the PACT Act, a law meant to expand health care coverage to Veterans.
The VA is aiming to screen all Veterans enrolled in VA health care for any toxic exposure.
“We have made significant progress toward our goal to screen all Veterans enrolled in VA health care for toxic exposures at least once every five years,” said VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal.
“But most importantly, this milestone means we’ve had 5 million opportunities to provide Veterans with the exposure-informed care they deserve.”
The PACT Act was a long time coming for many Veterans who struggled to link chronic conditions to their time spent at war.
The law takes some of the burden of proof from Veterans, taking a “presumptive” approach that links asthma, some cancers and other illnesses to burn pit exposure.
When Veterans are initially screened, VA health providers ask them if they believe they experienced any toxic exposures while in the military.
Veterans who say “yes” are asked follow-up questions, and offered connections to information on benefits, other clinical resources, and registry-related medical exams, according to the VA.
Any responses Veterans give during the screenings are added to their VA medical records.
The screening covers a number of various toxic exposures, although the two most commonly reported exposures are to Agent Orange — a widespread problem from the Vietnam War — and burn pits.
President Biden has, at times, speculated that exposure to burn pits during the Iraq War could have contributed to his son’s ultimately fatal brain cancer, although no connection has been formally established.
That made the fight to pass the PACT Act, and with it, more funding for Veterans’ health care, personal.