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VA to prioritize veterans with cancer for PACT Act benefits

Nov. 8 (UPI) — The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that veterans suffering from cancer will be given priority when it begins next year to process claims filed for illnesses associated with toxic exposure during their service.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough made the announcement during a speech at the National Press Club on Monday, which is National Cancer Awareness Day, and ahead of Veterans Day next week.

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“I’m proud to announce for the first time today … that we’re expediting benefits delivery for veterans with cancer conditions covered by the law,” he said.

The claims will begin to be processed Jan. 1 under the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, better known as the PACT Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in August to expand healthcare services to millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their service.

The act, considered the most significant expansion of veterans healthcare in 30 years, establishes presumptions of service for 23 conditions, the majority of which are cancers, stemming from exposure to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances.

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The department explained that the presumptions aid veterans in getting their benefits by reducing the evidence necessary to find that a condition was caused by toxic exposure while also eliminating the need to establish a link between service and the claimed condition.

Since the law was signed, nearly 125,000 veterans have filed PACT Act claims, nearly 14,000 of which are for cancer, the department said.

The act also created advanced screenings for toxic exposure, which enrolled veterans will have access to from Tuesday. McDonough described this move as “an important stop toward making sure that all toxic exposed vets get the care and benefits they deserve — even if they don’t know today that they were exposed.”

According to the department, the screening takes between 5 and 10 minutes and begins with asking the veteran if they believe they have experienced toxic exposure. Those who answer “yes” will be asked for specifics, including if they were exposed to burn pits or airborne hazards, Gulf War-related exposures, Agent Orange, radiation, Camp Lejeune contaminated water and other exposures.

A pilot program began on Sept. 6 with 13,380 veterans screened over a two-week period, finding a 37.4% concern of exposure among those seen.

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McDonough said that this work is part of Biden’s vision of a so-called cancer moonshot, which the president announced in February after having initially launched the program while he was vice president under the Obama administration.

The endeavor, which Biden said was a priority for his White House, aims to cut the U.S. cancer death rate by at least half in the next 25 years.

“This work is a part of President Biden’s vision for the Cancer Moonshot, which will end cancer as we know it,” McDonough said. “And it’s a part of his broader efforts across the government to do so.”

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