UPDATE: The Department of Veterans Affairs is extending the deadline for veterans and their survivors to file a claim under the PACT Act by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, August 14, in order to have their benefits backdated to August 2022, when the legislation was signed into law. Go to VA.gov to file a disability claim online or learn how to submit your intent to file.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is extending the deadline for veterans and their survivors to receive the maximum benefit they qualify for under the toxic-exposure PACT Act.
The VA is now giving veterans and their survivors until 11:59 p.m. ET Monday, August 14, to submit a benefits claim — or an intent to file a claim — and be eligible to have their benefits backdated to August 10, 2022, the day that President Biden signed the PACT Act into law.
VA spokesperson Terrence Hayes said Wednesday that the department is extending the deadline “out of an abundance of caution after experiencing technical difficulties” with VA.gov.
The VA faced an eleventh-hour surge of online applications from veterans and their survivors trying to meet the original Aug. 9 deadline for backdated benefits, which led to some applicants receiving an error message.
“Despite these messages, VA has successfully logged every one of these intents to file — meaning that every veteran or survivor who has received an error message while applying for PACT Act benefits can consider their intent to file complete,” Hayes said.
The VA is contacting applicants who received an error message, to confirm the department received their intent to file.
The VA, Hayes said, has also resolved “nearly all” of the technical issues with its website. As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, Hayes said less than 0.1% of attempts to submit an “intent to file” resulted in an error message.
The department estimates nearly one in five veterans who applied online Tuesday encountered an error message.
The VA is also dealing with high call volume to VA call centers throughout the week, and is taking steps to decrease abnormally long call center wait times.
“We continue to work on these issues and will not rest until they are fully resolved,” Hayes said.
Since Biden signed the PACT Act into law a year ago, veterans and their survivors have received $1.85 billion in benefits. About 330,000 veterans have enrolled in VA health care, and 4 million have received toxic exposure screenings.
House VA Committee Chairman Mike Bost (R-Ill.) is pressing the VA for answers over its technical issues.
Bost said approximately 5,600 veterans recently received an error message online when trying to submit an intent to file, and about 560 veterans did not have their intent to file successfully logged by the VA’s online system.
About 90% of veterans did have their intent to file successfully logged by the VA, but Bost said he remains “concerned” but the VA’s handling of the claims surge.
“VA’s failure to anticipate and prepare for the increased volume of submissions as the PACT Act deadline approached is unacceptable, given that the situation was easily foreseeable as this law is the largest expansion of healthcare and benefits for veterans in recent history,” Bost said.
VA’s Office of Information and Technology, he added, routinely scales up the processing capacity of other websites and systems to mitigate spikes in traffic
Bost and other congressional VA leaders are calling for a root cause analysis of the VA.gov technical issues.
VA sees surge in PACT Act benefit claims, website issues ahead of deadline
Hayes said in a statement Tuesday night that an “extremely high volume of submissions” led to some veterans and their survivors receiving error messages when submitting their “intent to file” PACT Act claims.
“We at VA are working to resolve this problem immediately, and we will make sure that no veteran or survivor misses out on their earned benefits because of these technical difficulties,” Hayes said.
“Due to the high volume of submissions we are receiving, you can’t continue with this claim form at this time — but we have received your intent to file and saved your effective date for benefits,” the error message states.
The VA’s updated error message informs applicants who have submitted an intent to file have one full year to fully complete their claim.
The VA says it’s working to resolve these technical difficulties, but is telling veterans and survivors to still file a PACT Act claim — or submit their intent to file.
“Despite these messages, every veteran or survivor who received an error message today while applying for PACT Act benefits can consider their intent to file complete,” Hayes said. “We are working to contact these individuals to confirm directly to them that their intent to file will be honored and their effective date protected.”
The VA said it also received an “extremely high” call volume to its toll-free phone number (800-698-2411) which serves as a “front door” for all its public-facing services.
The department said call wait times, which normally averaged 10-30 seconds, went up to 10-15 minutes on Tuesday.
“Bottom line: no veteran or survivor will miss out on a single day of benefits due to this issue,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough tweeted Wednesday.
The PACT Act marks a major expansion of VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances.
Under the PACT Act, veterans are automatically eligible for VA health care and benefits if they have one or more of 20 conditions linked to toxic exposure.
Senate VA Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is calling on the VA to guarantee all veterans who filed for PACT Act benefits have their submissions honored as on-time.
Tester, in a letter Wednesday, is asking the VA for an overview of the root cause of its technical difficulties, “and how VA will address this weakness in the system moving forward.”
Tester is also requesting daily updates on VA’s efforts to notify veterans that their claim — or intent to file a claim — has been received.
“VA must now follow through with its plan to accept the applications as being on-time and notify all impacted veterans they have successfully met the deadline,” he wrote. “It is critical that the men and women who have served our nation are able to access the health care and benefits they have earned.”
Tester is also pressing the VA to get its systems ready to handle a surge of health care applications before the Sept. 30 deadline for veterans to enroll in VA health care under the PACT Act.
“I request VA revisit the systems and processes in place to receive applications for health care to ensure they are able to handle a significant surge resulting from the deadline,” he wrote. “VA must ensure every veteran who is eligible to apply under the open enrollment authority is able to do so
House VA Committee Ranking Member Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said the VA briefed his staff about a “small number of veterans” who received an error message or experienced a system time-out while attempting to submit a PACT Act benefit claim.
“It cannot be minimized how disruptions like this can be stressful for veterans and their survivors. I urge VA to conduct the necessary after actions to find out what went wrong. While it is great news that thousands of veterans are filing for their PACT Act benefits ahead of the deadline, it is disappointing that VA had yet another IT problem that has confused and frustrated veterans,” Takano said.
Takano added that the VA should have anticipated a surge in PACT Act claims, and urged the department to use IT funding in the legislation “to ensure that these types of incidents don’t continue to happen.”
The VA is ramping up its workforce under the PACT Act. The Veterans Health Administration hired more than 43,000 new employees so far in fiscal year 2023, and is on track to meet its year-end goal of making 52,000 new hires.
The PACT Act gives the VA more than 10 new authorities to support hiring and retention. Those include higher limits for student loan repayments, recruitment, relocation, and retention incentives, and eliminating statutory limits on awards and bonuses.
The Veterans Benefits Agency also has more than 30,000 employees, its largest workforce ever.
“There’s more for us to do for our frontline employees,” McDonough said at a press conference Tuesday.
The PACT Act marks the largest expansion of VA health care and benefits in a generation. The VA estimates about 3.5 million additional veterans will receive VA health care or benefits under the legislation.
Comedian Jon Stewart, a leading advocate for the PACT Act who spent much of last year pressing lawmakers to pass the legislation, urged veterans and their survivors to apply for benefits by the Aug. 9 deadline.
“I beg of you, get those benefits that you and your family have earned,” Stewart said in a July 26 video message on Twitter. “It will be well worth it … you earned them.”