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Veterans describe PACT Act’s benefit for covering illness from toxic exposures

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Veterans describe PACT Act’s benefit for covering illness from toxic exposures

May 27, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Erik Gunn
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Veterans describe PACT Act’s benefit for covering illness from toxic exposures
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Daniel Connery, left, Dane County Veterans Service Office director, talks to Sen. Tammy Baldwin at a round table discussion about the PACT Act Friday. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

Dan Stormer was serving on a U.S. Navy warship in the Persian Gulf in 1991 when a smoky cloud enveloped the vessel.

Outside the ship, he recalled Friday, “Everything was gray.” What was it? “I don’t know.”

The fumes from whatever it was lingered for days. Commanders sealed the ship off and confined those on board inside, but that didn’t keep out the chemical haze completely.

Fifteen years later, Stormer was hospitalized with collapsed lungs. He applied for health coverage from the Department of Veterans Affairs, blaming his Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm wartime exposure. “What had happened to me was not normal,” he said.

His claim was denied, and his appeals dragged on for more than a decade. That changed in early 2023, when a Dane County Veterans Services Office caseworker told him about the PACT Act, signed into law the previous August. He applied again and got coverage. “I was ecstatic,” Stormer said.

Stormer was among a group of veterans and veterans’ counselors who met Friday with Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin to talk about the impact of the 2022 PACT Act

The law’s full name is The Sergeant First Class (SFC) Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act. It commits the federal government and the Department of Veterans Affairs health system to covering countless ailments for armed forces personnel exposed to toxic chemicals. The Biden administration last week announced that 1 million claims have been approved since the law’s passage.

That problem became particularly acute  among service members who took part in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq starting in 2001 and were exposed to chemical burn pits. The law extends to exposure from chemicals on battlefields around the world, going as far back as the conflict in Southeast Asia more than 50 years ago.

Baldwin had a staffer who was a Gulf War vet. “He had a horrible, hacking cough,” she told those assembled for the discussion. Rebuffed when he sought VA coverage, “he felt like he was fighting his own government for recognition of his condition.”

At the time Baldwin, a Democrat, was representing Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House before being elected to the Senate in 2010. Moved by her staff member’s experience she began working to address the issue.

“The PACT Act was the product of many, many years of advocacy,” she said. “It was the largest ever expansion of VA disability services.”

Gratitude from veterans

Baldwin’s Madison session was the fourth around Wisconsin that she has conducted to learn how the PACT Act has been rolling out since President Joe Biden signed it into law in August 2022.

“Whether it’s physical or something like post-traumatic stress disorder that’s a consequence of your service — seeing your government recognize that and seeing the VA recognize that is really important, and I hear a lot of gratitude from veterans,” Baldwin told the Wisconsin Examiner.

During the hour she spent Friday she heard stories about the difference the expansion of coverage had made for veterans like Stormer and veterans’ spouses like Nancy Henderson.

Henderson said her husband, a Vietnam veteran named George Heideman who died two months ago, was able to be covered in the last couple of years of his life because of changes the PACT Act made.

Heideman had hypertension and hypertension-related dementia when he died, she said. Under the PACT Act, for Vietnam vets exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange during their service,  hypertension later in life is presumed to have been a result of that exposure.

Baldwin also asked the round table participants what could be done to make sure more people who might qualify learn about how the PACT Act could help them.

Stormer told Baldwin that, until his Dane County Veterans Office caseworker told him about it, “I had no clue it was passed.”

“Outreach is never-ending,” said Daniel Connery, Dane County Veterans Service Office director. “We find people all the time who are unaware of their benefits.”

A surprise letter

The VA has also been going through the records of people previously denied coverage and inviting some who might now qualify to apply again. That’s how Air Force veteran Gary Streufert got coverage for exposure to Agent Orange in the early 1970s in Thailand.

“You saw people spraying outside the perimeter all the time,” Streufert told Baldwin. He didn’t know what it was until many years later.

Although it coincided with the American war next door in Vietnam, his deployment in Thailand was secret at the time. “The government didn’t admit we were there until 1989,” Streufert said.

In 2017 Streufert applied for coverage for diabetes medication, presumed to be service-related among veterans exposed to Agent Orange. But when he applied, only limited Vietnam-era service in Thailand was covered. His wasn’t.

The PACT Act expanded VA coverage to service throughout Thailand from 1962 through mid-1976 and several other previously excluded locations. Streufert got a surprise notice in the mail from the VA telling him he could be eligible, and he was soon enrolled.

Until then his diabetes medication was costing him $1,000 a month even after insurance coverage, Streufert told the Wisconsin Examiner. Now the VA coverage has wiped away that expense. “If it wasn’t for the PACT Act, I probably wouldn’t be as healthy as I am,” he said.

Unaccredited profiteers

Baldwin also asked the group about for-profit businesses that have wormed their way into the PACT Act enrollment process. The Washington Post reported last week that unaccredited, for-profit companies have made hundreds of millions of dollars purporting to help veterans sign up, despite a law that bars charging veterans for helping apply for disability benefits.

Veterans assistance workers taking part in the round table exchanged nods of recognition when Baldwin raised the question. One called the outside agencies “claim sharks.”

Shawn Rivers, Racine County Veterans Service Officer, said he’s encountered at least three vets who have gotten that sort of help — spending money needlessly for the assistance that his office or its counterparts across the state would provide for free.

Rivers told the Wisconsin Examiner after the round table talk that in at least one instance the applicant “missed the opportunity for back pay” because the outside consultant didn’t instruct the applicant to file an intent to make a claim before completing the paperwork. That would have set the applicant’s effective date for benefits sooner, he explained.

Connery, the Dane County official, agreed that outside businesses in the application process are a problem. “Overwhelmingly these outside third parties are not vetted and not accredited through the VA,” he told the Wisconsin Examiner.

Official veterans caseworkers such as those in his office aren’t in the role of approving or denying claims, Connery said, but they try to guide applicants to focus their claims on elements most likely to be accepted as valid.

He told Baldwin that the outside businesses appear to be “clogging up the system with bogus claims.”

Baldwin told the Wisconsin Examiner she wants to look into the findings that the Post article reported, but that she needed to research the topic more deeply before prescribing a policy. One issue that caught her attention, though, was the decision to not impose criminal penalties when someone illegally charges veterans for helping them apply for benefits.

“We should maybe reexamine that move and see if we should strengthen that law to create a greater disincentive from exploiting veterans,” Baldwin said.