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Lehigh Valley veterans urged to file for PACT Act benefits before backdate deadline

The second wave of combat helicopters of the 1st Air Cavalry Division fly over an RTO and his commander on an isolated landing zone during Operation Pershing, a search and destroy mission on the Bong Son Plain and An Lao Valley of South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. The two American soldiers are waiting for the second wave to come in.
Patrick Christain
Getty Images
Vietnam War veterans as well as servicemen and women who have served in the Middle East and Afghanistan since the Gulf War may qualify for expanded health benefits under the PACT Act.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Veterans and their survivors can file for PACT Act benefits by Monday, Aug. 14 as the deadline has been extended to make sure no one will miss out on the benefits.

Wild, D-Lehigh Valley, voted last summer for the PACT Act, a bipartisan bill that made it easier for veterans who served in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, Vietnam and other locations to receive health benefits for specific ailments. But nearly a year after President Joe Biden signed the legislation, Wild is concerned many of her constituents will miss out on a year's worth of benefits they are entitled to. Only 735 of more than 44,000 veterans in Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District had applied for expanded health benefits under the PACT Act, she said.

  • Last summer, Congress passed the PACT Act, which expanded healthcare benefits for veterans who served in Vietnam and those exposed to burn pits
  • Veterans who served in Afghanistan and the Middle East are now presumed to have been exposed to toxins that can cause cancer and other serious illnesses
  • If veterans or their survivors want to receive backdated benefits, they need to apply by an Aug. 14, 2023 deadline

"We all acknowledge and thank them for their service to this country, but all too often I feel veterans have been left high and dry when it comes to getting their needs met when they’re done with their service," Wild said.

The three-term congresswoman speculated that locals may not be aware of the law or may be turned off by failed past efforts to receive health benefits. Compiling the medical history and service records to file a successful claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs has long been challenging. She recalled the difficulties her father had qualifying for benefits for his hearing loss that she attributed to his Air Force service. And that didn't come with the stress inherent in treating a life-threatening disease.

"I can only imagine the things people with neurological illnesses or cancer must be going through," she said.

Veterans or their survivors either need to complete their application or send in a notice of intention to file by Aug. 14 to have their benefits backdated to last summer.

What does the PACT Act do?

The PACT Act shifts the burden veterans normally have to meet in order to qualify for healthcare benefits. In most cases, veterans need to link their disability to their service. While this is relatively straightforward for people wounded in combat, it's more complicated when they're exposed to toxins or carcinogens that may not create health problems until years or decades later.

The PACT Act eases that burden by expanding the list of illnesses that are presumed to be linked to their service so long as the veteran served at a specific time and place. Military personnel who were exposed to burn pits during their service in the Gulf War or after Sept. 11, 2001, can now automatically qualify for benefits to treat brain cancer, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, kidney cancer and pulmonary fibrosis, among others.

The military has used burn pits — open-air locations where solid waste was disposed of through burning — since the Gulf War. After Sept. 11, civilian contractors and military personnel began protesting their use and filing lawsuits. They claimed that burning medical waste, electronics, rubber and plastics led to serious health problems for U.S. forces by releasing toxins and chemicals into the air. The Department of Defense estimates 3.5 million service members could have been exposed to burn pits, and the Department of Veterans Affairs says some are still in use.

Burn pits and their potential health hazards seized greater public attention on the campaign trail in 2019. Former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, the son of President Joe Biden, died of brain cancer in 2015. President Biden has repeatedly blamed burn pits for causing his son's cancer. While there's no direct evidence to substantiate that, the military did not keep records of what was disposed of in the burn pits where Beau Biden served. There have been limited studies on the effect burn pits have had on service members, though experts have acknowledged their potential to cause a wide number of ailments.

The PACT Act also allows Vietnam War veterans to automatically qualify for benefits to treat monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, which can lead to blood cancer, and hypertension.

"I’m doing as much outreach as I can, but it’s also very hard. You can’t just stand in the middle of the street and scream PACT Act."
Tom Applebach, Lehigh County's director of veterans affairs

Application support

Tom Applebach, Lehigh County's director of veterans affairs, said there's an uptick in applications and inquiries since the VA sent letters to every veteran in its system last month. Still, he's been struggling to make people aware of the benefits available to them and who's now eligible.

"I’m doing as much outreach as I can, but it’s also very hard. You can’t just stand in the middle of the street and scream PACT Act," he said.

He was unsure how many residents of Lehigh County would be newly eligible through the act — his office is more concerned about what benefits his clients need than how they qualify for them, he said. He noted, however, that just because thousands of people may be eligible that doesn't mean they all qualify.

Veterans don't necessarily need to have all their documents prepared to lock in their benefits, he said. By submitting an intention to file form now, service members and their families can buy themselves up to a year to gather the necessary paperwork to qualify. He advised potential applicants to get their forms in by Aug. 8 — a day before the cutoff — to be sure their data enters the VA's system in time.

Applebach praised not just the expanded healthcare benefits in the act but other provisions in the law. For years, many veterans linking their service time to their ailments had their claims denied because there were no scientific studies to corroborate their claims. It wasn't that the claims were bogus, Applebach said; there just wasn't data to make a finding either way.

"That’s a really good thing, that Congress is providing the VA with the direction and funding to do these studies," Applebach said. "They're being proactive."

In addition, the law earmarked $31 million to build a new VA clinic in Allentown that would double the size of the current location on Hamilton Boulevard. In the meantime, the VA has leased 7,700 square feet of office space on Cedarbrook Boulevard in South Whitehall to provide expanded behavioral health services.

To learn more about the PACT Act or to submit an application, head to VA.gov. Anyone with questions or in need of assistance to apply for benefits can contact their county's Office of Veterans Affairs.

Carbon County —76 Susquehanna St., Jim Thorpe — 570-325-3986
Lehigh County — 17 S. 7th St., Allentown — 610-782-3295
Monroe County — 1 Quaker Plaza, Stroudsburg — 570-517-3187
Northampton County — 2801 Emrick Blvd., Bethlehem Township — 610-829-4875