The PACT Act is working, but getting the word out to Veterans is still imperative.
“Approximately 7,200 PACT Act-related claims have been filed in Wisconsin … with an about 88% grant rate. That’s pretty high,” said Duane Honeycutt, director of the Milwaukee Regional Office of the Veterans Benefits Administration, during a PACT Act symposium Saturday in Green Bay.
But Veterans still need to apply and go through a screening to see if they qualify, Honeycutt said.
Before the legislation was signed into law Aug. 10, 2022, there were restrictions depending on when and where Veterans served. But the PACT Act eliminates many of those restrictions, expanding benefits for thousands of Veterans, including those who served during Vietnam, the Cold War and in the Middle East.
“It eliminated some of the hoops Veterans used to have to jump through,” Honeycutt said. “My best advice to you is to apply and get screened. … It is complicated. But the best thing you can do if you believe you might be eligible is to apply.”
And applying before Aug. 10, 2023, is important: All successful claims filed before that date will pay out retroactively to Aug. 10, 2022, he said. That benefit goes away on Aug. 11, 2023.
About 75 Veterans and Veteran advocates attended the symposium to learn more about the new legislation, who it affects and how to qualify for benefits.
Hosted by the Milwaukee VA Medical Center and the Veterans Benefits Administration, the event aimed to bring the PACT Act message to the thousands of Veterans in northeastern Wisconsin, many of whom get their care at the Milwaukee VA’s Green Bay clinic or other outpatient clinics in Appleton and Cleveland.
When asked at the end of the event if anyone had learned something new, nearly every hand in the auditorium was raised.
“A lot of education took place today,” said Joe Aulik, Brown County Veterans Service Officer. “Those 75 people will take that information back with them, and it will trickle out into the community, which was one of our mission goals.”
Aulik sought to have the event in Green Bay after seeing a similar event in Milwaukee in December.
“We wanted to grab people from Shawano, Oconto and those northern counties,” he said. “And we can’t stop here today; we have to keep pushing it out.”
The event emphasized the importance of all potentially eligible Veterans — whether or not they receive VA care now or have been denied in the past — to apply and get screened.
The screenings take 5-10 minutes and ask Veterans about toxic substances they may have been exposed to as well as the health conditions they have today. When it comes to presumptive conditions, Veterans do not have to prove a connection between their health condition and the potential exposure, according to Omar Knighton, deputy program manager for benefits management at the Milwaukee VA.
There are dozens of presumptive conditions, and the most common that are generating claims are hypertension (high blood pressure) and Parkinson’s disease, Honeycutt said. The list also includes numerous respiratory ailments (including asthma), melanoma and numerous cancers.
Kandis Sullivan, nurse practitioner at the Green Bay VA Health Care Clinic, recommended that Veterans get their medical records in line when applying for PACT Act benefits — especially those Veterans who have received medical treatment outside VA.
Those records should be shared with a VA provider, she said, which can then help establish links to receive PACT Act benefits. Plus, she said many hospitals are destroying old paper records, so Veterans should transfer those record to VA, which will keep them in perpetuity.
While there are numerous ways to apply for PACT Act benefits, one of the best ways is to work with a county Veterans service officer, Honeycutt said.
“Do you need a service officer to file your claim? No. Should you have one? By all means,” Honeycutt said. “They are very familiar with the new legislation. … They know this inside and out.”
And once a Veteran is connected with VA care, primary care providers can take it from there, Sullivan said.
“Having your dedicated VA provider, helping you walk through the process, is a huge advantage you can’t buy on the outside,” she said. “You’ll have an advocate in your corner who understands this law and these processes better than anybody else.”