Story and photos by Darl DeVault, contributing editor
Oklahomans are ensuring their fellow military veterans can register for the new Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act. Hundreds of Veterans Administration employees are ensuring this is possible at well-attended monthly outreach VA Veterans Festival (VET Fest) and PACT Act Resource Fairs around the state.
The most recent event was held by Oklahoma City VA employees on July 22, in west Oklahoma City, where 30 VA employees assisted veterans at the 7725 CONNECT building. The multi-tenant business campus in the old Western Electric Plant at Reno and Council saw 70 veterans lined up at the 9 a.m. opening, and 150 were assisted throughout the day.
The event was designed to provide services for veterans, spouses, caregivers, veteran’s widows, survivors and active-duty personnel. This outreach allows the VA to provide expanded healthcare and benefits to generations of veterans and their survivors.
The Warriors for Freedom Foundation co-hosted the event from their office in the 7725 Connect building. The nonprofit volunteers assisted the Oklahoma City, VA staff in spreading the word that more veterans and their survivors are eligible for benefits and VA health care under the PACT Act.
Signed into law by President Joe Biden in August 2022, the “Honoring our PACT Act of 2022” (in its short title version) initiates the most extensive health care and benefits expansion in VA history. This sweeping federal law comprehensively addresses all the service-connected toxic exposure issues of the last six decades.
The act expands VA care eligibility for veterans who experienced exposure to toxic substances during service in Vietnam, the Gulf War and post-9/11 eras. Some veterans’ surviving family members may also be eligible for specific benefits.
The line kept moving, with 30 people who had arrived around 11:30 a.m. waiting in line at noon. The event ran until 4 p.m.
The veterans were helped to register for PACT Act services and check the status of their PACT Act claims, while some were assisted with getting a My HealtheVet Premium account which allows them to sign in to VA online tools.
“The process was timely, very helpful and friendly,” said Staff Sergeant Sarah Scott, who served at Tarin Kwot, Afghanistan, from 2010-2011. The Noble resident, now on active duty with the Oklahoma National Guard, said that once she was registered, she could go right to the people who provided her with the information she needed.
To be eligible for benefits under the PACT Act, a veteran’s disability must connect to their military service. The VA now automatically assumes that a veteran’s service caused some conditions. These are known as “presumptive conditions.” The PACT Act added more than 20 categories of presumptive conditions from exposure to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances.
“We are all excited to roll out the PACT Act to OKC veterans because this is one of the largest program expansions in veteran healthcare we have ever seen,” said Carmen Daugherty, OKC VA public affairs officer.
The veterans who attended the PACT Act presumptive claims event asked VA eligibility and service officers questions about their exposure and claim eligibility. They were able to receive toxic exposure screenings from medical staff. Some filed a claim and, in some cases, received a same-day decision from the four VA doctors on hand.
“Being a veteran, I am thrilled to help veterans get their VA health care and benefits fixed,” Daugherty said. “Some of these veterans have waited for 20 plus years to finally get answers to their exposure questions and get claims filed.”
The act also requires the VA to provide toxic exposure screenings to every veteran enrolled in VA care. Many veterans enrolled in VA care for the first time at the event and were helped to secure appointments at the downtown VA Hospital.
Those enrolling in VA care for the first time started the process of having their ID cards mailed out to them.
Some 20 Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) staffers also worked many stations to provide information about benefits and services to veterans and their families. Many other services were provided, including four State of Oklahoma staffers providing information about state veteran services and Oklahoma Tax Commission privileges extended to veterans with 100 percent disability.
An underlying emphasis of PACT Act outreach is to fully inform veteran’s widows of their access to benefits around the state in what has already been 10 VET Fest or PACT Act Resource Fairs, including several cohosted by tribal nations.
“The PACT Act makes it easier for survivors and widows to receive monthly VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (VA DIC),” Daugherty said. “They qualify if they are a surviving spouse, dependent child, or parent of a veteran who died from a service-connected disability.”
The VA also provides survivors previously denied DIC benefits the opportunity to be re-evaluated to see if they are now eligible under PACT Act provisions. The VA asks widows to come to one of the PACT Act events or the main Oklahoma City VA Health Care System to determine if they qualify.
“Our experts will re-evaluate each case and answer benefits questions for you and your family,” Daugherty said. “Some benefits include burial allowance, education and training, monthly payments, home loans and health care. At these outreach events, we are bringing the experts to investigate each case and figure out exactly what benefits veteran’s widows are entitled to register for as a surviving family member.”
Another benefit explored at these events is that a surviving spouse, dependent child, or dependent parent of a veteran may receive a one-time accrued benefits payment if the veteran was owed unpaid benefits at the time of their death. The VA also informs everyone who qualifies for a Survivors Pension as a surviving spouse or child of a veteran with wartime service.
For more information about this VA benefits outreach campaign, click The PACT Act And Your VA Benefits | Veterans Affairs.